Q&A: The origin of ‘push the envelope’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's the envelope, please…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about the phrase, “push the envelope”?

A: We sure can. To “push the envelope” is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “going beyond the usual or normal limits by doing something new, dangerous, etc.”

Q: That’s the one. But I’m confused.

A: You wear it well.

Q: Thanks. You see, I used to work in a post office.

A: Oh really? Sounds fascinating!

Q: Actually I left because I hated how mail-dominated it was.

A: Um, sure.

Q: Anyway, my point is that I recall pushing an envelope as being a really boring thing to do. Not new or dangerous at all. So where’s the connection?

A: Perhaps it’s related to the envelope CONTAINING something very exciting and you’re pushing it into a postbox?

Q: Oh, is that it?

A: Nope. It’s not. 

Q: Hmmm. Oh! But what about in a movie where someone pushes an envelope across the table during a deal?

A: What movie is that?

Q: I dunno, just some business deal movie. I wanna say Wolf of Wall Street?

A: Again, no. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that “pushing the envelope” has very little to do with stationery – and more to do with remaining stationary (or not).

Q: Ooooh nice. Please continue.

A: Since 1705, the word “envelope” – taken from the French “envelopper” meaning to envelop – has typically been something we place postal items into. However, the scientific community started using it differently.

Q: Oh, do you mean those inter-department envelopes where you tie the string around the thingy at the back?

A: No, we meant that their definition of the word “envelope” had a broader meaning relating to an enclosure.

Q: Examples?

A: Initially, at least as early as 1901, hot air balloons and airships described  that big membrane part that contains the gas as their “envelope”. And later in the 20th century, an envelope came to relate to the performance factors around flying a plane.

Q: So, the dimensions of an aircraft?

A: Not quite. Think of it more as an aircraft’s limitations during flight. A “flight envelope” relates to quantifiable limitations like maximum airspeed or altitude.

Q: That’s nice. But what has this got to do with “pushing the envelope”?

A: Everything! In fact, in terms of aeronautics, science has been trying to push the limitations of flight for decades – to go faster and higher, for longer. To push that performance envelope. To push the bounds of safety. To boldly go where––

Q: Yes yes, we get it. So basically it’s the start of Top Gun Maverick – the bit where he’s pushing the fancy plane to Mach 10?

A: Exactly! As highly improbable as it was, he did indeed “push the envelope” in that scene. Of course, in reality, no human has ever sustained that level and unlikely ever will. The forces would be too great.

Q: “Take my breath awaaaay…”

A: Haha. More like: “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling in your internal organs – now they’re gone, gone, gone, whoa-oh…”

Q: Nice. So, we’ve established the scientific meaning of “envelope”. But when did we start saying “push the envelope”? It must be quite recent?

A: You’re right. One of its first appearances in print was in 1978, citing NASA pilots as “pushing the envelope” in taking an aircraft designed for sea-level up to 10,000 feet.

Q: But how did it go mainstream?

A: A year later, in 1979, Tom Wolfe published his book, The Right Stuff – later made into a film – which detailed NASA’s Mercury Seven astronauts as pushing these ‘envelope’ limits. Wolfe later said he’d first heard the term in the early 1970s, but thought famous test pilots like Chuck Yeagar had been using it since the 1940s.

Q: I hear they had “great balls of fire”.

A: Is that another Top Gun reference?

Q: I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you…

A: Ugh. That’s another one, isn’t it?

Q: So, getting back to “pushing the envelope”, all it took was “The Right Stuff” to push the phrase forward?

A: Haha, yeah – it brought the term to the masses in an age of space shuttles and Cold War stealth jets. As often happens, it began to quite literally move into a figurative space – with teacher Christa McAullife described in 1986 as ”pushing out the envelope of the planet” as a civilian training on NASA’s ill-fated Challenger mission that year.

Q: I guess the idea of “pushing” something wasn’t exactly new, yeah?

A: That’s true. Since 1754, we’d been “pushing our luck”. We’d been “pushing people around” since 1923 and “push came to shove” was first recorded in 1936. Even “push up bras” had been pushing the limits of, ahem, ‘space’, since 1957.

Q: We have lift off!

A: Exactly. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that by the late 1980s, “push the envelope” had rapidly spread from first describing other risky physical accomplishments to finally meaning any metaphorical boundary-pushing activity.

Q: Examples?

A: “The artist has really pushed the envelope with her new technique.” Or, “The tech company is pushing the envelope in exploring AI’s capabilities.”

Q: So to recap, to “push the envelope” today is about doing anything considered risque or cutting edge? 

A: Or simply extending one’s capabilities or ideas. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone.

Q: “Hiiiiiighway to the daaaanger zone!”

A: Exactly. The original physical flight-based envelope was about providing a safe enclosure – much like a paper-based one does for your letter or greeting card. 

Q: I only get Bill’s.

A: Yes, bills are also common to receive in envelopes.

Q: No, I mean that a guy called Bill used to live in my house. I still get his mail. It’s annoying.

A: Oh, okay.

Q: Anyway, thanks for explaining this one – who knew that it was more related to “The Right Stuff” than “the write stuff”?

A: We did. We knew.

Q: Fair enough. Well, at least now when I think of pushing an envelope, I’ll think of it as more of a “need for speed” rather than a “need for stamps”!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

 

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