phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Pushing the envelope

Posted by Bob on October 31, 2003

In Reply to: Pushing the envelope posted by Anders on October 30, 2003

: : : : What is implied by the expression a "moving envelope"? In a discussion group (of which I am a member) somebody recently wrote:

: : : : ". . . there are obviously tons of people doing a good job of teaching. Look at the moving envelope of research in about any discipline."

: : : : Another member of the group commented on this by saying:

: : : : "The prose of this offering (tons of people, the moving envelope of research) doesn't inspire much confidence."

: : : : Perhaps people are not best measured in tons, but at least this expression is clear. "Moving envelope" on the other hand - I can't even make a guess as to what it may mean.

: : : : Best
: : : : Anders

: : : There is no such expression; what the poster meant was the expanding envelope, boundaries, parameters, etc, of research. The poor choices in wording was what the response was complaining about.

: : The expression "pushing the envelope" is very common right now in the US, at least in New York. It does mean pushing the boundries. Perhaps the poster substituted "move" for "push". Unfortunately I don't know the origin of the term.

: Thanks very much for your helpful replies! That clears it up a little. Still, "pushing the envelope" is quite odd too, I think. What type of envelope are we talking about? My Concise Oxford Dictionary lists 7 meanings, the last of which is from Maths ("a line or curve tangent to each line or curve of a given family."). I'm not sure what is meant here exactly, but I can imagine the reference being to the type of envelope you put your letters in, as well as to "a line or a curve," cf. the expression "a (steep) learning curve."

: BTW, "pushing the envelope," in the sense trying to fit a large letter into a small evevelope, might as well have meant: a useless effort. You know how it goes, you either give up or you eventually break the envelope; the optimistic thought of expanding or "pushing the envelope" being naive. Do you agree?

: Anders

I believe the phrase figures in Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" where the test pilots of the Mojave Desert used it to describe the ever-expanding risk at the outer limits of supersonic flight. Some of these guys became the first american astronauts, and the phrase was launched. Good movie; better book.