Posted by: Jack Henry | April 2, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Pushing the Envelope

The other day, one of you said you were “pushing the envelope” with your response to my Editor’s Corner article about double exclamation points and double question marks. (I must admit, it was quite smart of you to bring up Spanish and the upside-down punctuation at the beginning of a question or an exclamation!) But once you were done flashing around your intelligence and smartitude, you asked me about the phrase “pushing the envelope.” I was imagining a wig-wearing man, sitting around a table with noblemen and pushing an envelope to someone. I was so very wrong!

To my buddy Keith (and the rest of you language-lovers), here’s where this fairly modern phrase comes from, according to The Grammarist and several other sites I checked.

To push the envelope means to extend the boundary of what is possible, to take a risk by going farther than others think is acceptable.

The term push the envelope was popularized in the early 1980s, following the publication of the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. The book The Right Stuff chronicled American pilots who tested high-speed aircraft, including the early astronauts. Tom Wolfe quoted pilots using the term “pushing the outside of the envelope” to describe challenging speed records and other aerial feats.

The envelope in question is the “flight envelope,” which includes all possible aircraft maneuvers. The idiom most probably originated among American pilots during World War II. After the publication of Wolfe’s book, the term push the envelope migrated into everyday English to be used in a figurative sense.

Related terms are pushes the envelope, pushed the envelope and pushing the envelope.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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