Push the envelope

Dear Word Detective: I have somehow gotten the impression that “pushing the envelope” means encroaching on forbidden territory in a conversational sense. I would like to know if this is so. If I am correct or not, from where did the expression come? – Rene Guggisberg.

Good question. I think I know what you mean, as when you say something like “Lovely engagement ring, Debbie. Is that the one Dave got on eBay?” Conversations can be tricky. Personally, I have a tendency to answer people’s rhetorical questions literally, and folks who make the mistake of asking “Why me?” in my presence often get five or six good suggestions.

I have actually answered a question about “pushing the envelope” before, but I see by the clock on the wall that it’s been almost exactly ten years, so we’ll take another run at it. To “push the envelope” does include straining the boundaries of polite conversation, but more broadly it means to approach, exceed, or even extend the limits of what is considered possible or permissible in any context. This can be a good thing, as when a race car driver sets a new world’s record time, or a bad thing, as when an office worker sets a new record for calling in sick. In both cases, the attempt itself carries a risk considered too great by most people.

“Pushing the envelope” comes from a field, however, where tremendous risk is the whole point. It’s drawn from the lingo of test pilots, whose job consists of pushing their aircraft right up to and often beyond the technical specifications and theoretical limits of their craft. While “pushing the envelope” (originally in the form “pushing the edge of the envelope”) has probably been in use among test pilots since World War II, it was propelled into general usage by Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about test pilots and the early US space program, The Right Stuff. The “envelope” being pushed in “pushing the envelope” is a mathematical construct, what is called the “flight envelope” of a given aircraft: combinations of speed and altitude, range and speed, or speed and stress on the aircraft’s frame, that are considered the limits of the plane’s capabilities. Within the “envelope” formed by these parameters, you’re (at least theoretically) OK. Push those limits and you’re asking for trouble, which is what test pilots do for a living. In the process, they verify the safety of the aircraft within those limits and pinpoint possible points of failure if the “envelope” is pushed too far.

Given the popularity of Tom Wolfe’s book (and the movie made from it), it’s not surprising that by the early 1980s “push the envelope” was being used in non-aviation contexts with the diluted meaning of “experiment, innovate, take risks” (“Steven Bochco is offering a new series this fall on ABC, ‘NYPD Blue,’ that … will ‘push the edge of the envelope’ of profanity, nudity and artistic violence,” 1989).

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