Push The Envelope

The English language can be a minefield. Many phrases seem to make perfect sense, but can be a bit befuddling when you look deeper.

Push the envelope is one of these phrases that seems straightforward at first glance, but has a complex background. The phrase stems from aeronautics, and has nothing to do with stationery.


The English language can be a minefield. While many phrases make perfect sense to practiced fluent speakers, others are so jargon-laden that they cannot be understood by those without the proper training. One such phrase is “push the envelope.” What does it mean? Does it refer to a physical limit or something that is risky or radical? Let’s take a look at the history and meaning of this phrase.

The word “envelope” in this expression doesn’t derive from stationery, as many might think. The origin of the word comes from the Latin envolper, which means to wrap or envelop. The sense of this word that gave us push the envelope relates to limits that cannot be safely exceeded. The term was first used in aeronautics, where it describes the safe bounds of an aircraft’s speed, load and altitude. Pilots who test their limits by flying above or below these boundaries are said to be pushing the envelope.

The first documented printing of the phrase appears in a July 1978 article in Aviation Week And Space Technology.  Some online resources cite the possibility of the phrase being used in print, within Air Force training documents from 1969.

This use of the term became popular after Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff, which documented the Mercury Seven astronauts and their space flight tests. The phrase has since spread to other fields, and can be applied to any activity that might involve a risky physical accomplishment, or any innovative idea that is viewed as a bit of a stretch.

A similar use of this term is seen in the title of a 1975 book by John Lerman called, Pushing the Envelope: The Story of the Wright Brothers and Their Invention of Flying. This was the earliest known publication of this phrase in the form of a book. The book was a biography of the Wright brothers and also included other notable aviators. It was not until 1986 that William Safire began using the phrase in his newspaper column.


The phrase push the envelope entered the mainstream lexicon from the field of space flight and aviation. It first appeared in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 nonfiction book The Right Stuff, which was about the astronauts and test pilots of early American space exploration, such as Chuck Yeager. Wolfe used the phrase when describing Yeager’s achievement of flying through “the supersonic envelope” at high speeds.

From this aeronautical context, the phrase push the envelope became a metaphor for surpassing normal limits and trying something viewed as radical or risky. It was originally limited to space travel, but has since expanded to other risky physical accomplishments and more generally to any boundary-pushing endeavor.

For example, if a teacher has a rule against candy in class, and one student brings a cough drop to school every day, that is pushing the envelope. It is not a grave violation of the rules, but it is getting very close.

On the other hand, a TV network that picks up a show that has been off the air for a long time and then retools it to be more modern is certainly pushing the envelope. The new format may be seen as risky, but it is a way to attract viewers and possibly revive the show’s ratings.


Pushing the envelope is an expression that means to exceed or go beyond the limits of what is possible. It is a common phrase that can be used in both professional and personal contexts.

The expression was originally aviation slang and related to the flight envelope, an engineering chart that graphs the limits of aircraft performance. This envelope outlines all combinations of speed and altitude that the plane can safely fly in. Pilots often challenge these limits in order to test their abilities and see how far they can go. 

A person who is said to be pushing the envelope is trying to achieve a new level of success in their profession or hobby. For example, a person who is pushing the envelope might be a risk-taker who takes big chances when investing their money. This type of person might also be a creative individual who is always searching for ways to improve or innovate their products.

Other examples of pushing the envelope include a person who challenges conventional wisdom or conventions. For example, a person might challenge the way that they dress or the way that they act in public. This person is pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in society.

A famous example of pushing the envelope is when Madonna took off her thong top in front of her fans. This was a bold move and it made her famous for a short time. Other celebrities are known for pushing the boundaries in their style choices, including Beyonce and her family. They are always trying to find new ways to wear clothes that are a bit more revealing or controversial. Musicians also like to push the envelope with their improvisational skills and try to create something that no one else has ever heard before. This is a good way to keep their audiences entertained and interested.


The phrase push the envelope means to go beyond normal limits or attempt something viewed as radical or risky. It comes from the aeronautical use of the word envelope, which refers to performance limits that cannot be exceeded safely. The idiom first appeared in the context of manned flight, but it has since expanded to refer to any boundary-pushing activity.

In general, the phrase has a positive connotation, suggesting someone is willing to take risks and try new things. It can also be used to describe a person who is innovative and seeks to improve upon existing technology.

As the phrase has gained popularity, it has been used more frequently in both professional and social settings. For example, a manager might encourage employees to push the envelope with their sales goals by promising rewards for top performers. The phrase can be used in verbal conversations or in text-based communications.

A more casual use of the phrase is to suggest that a person is taking risks or trying something new. A musician might push the envelope by performing a song in a way that is unusual or risks being criticized. A songwriter might push the envelope by writing a controversial song or by using profanity in his or her lyrics.

The idiom push the envelope is related to the expression break the mold, which refers to a person who does something unconventional or unique. This can be a positive thing, but it is important to know how far to push the envelope without crossing into risky territory. The phrase push the envelope is also sometimes used to describe a person who is not following rules or regulations. This can be dangerous, as it could lead to trouble with the law.

Even with the phrase being incorporated into different contexts, the most meaningful still remains in the concept of risk taking, or going past established boundaries.

Similar Posts