Have you ever been told that some idea you had or some thing you wanted to do would be “pushing the envelope”? Basically, anyone who takes a risk is said to be “pushing the envelope.” It’s such a widely-used phrase that we don’t ever really question it, even though it really doesn’t seem to make much sense…until you look into WHY we say it. So, why would ambition be tied to moving a paper container around? Why would we invoke stationery when speaking of risk-taking?
Well, actually, we aren’t. In this particular instance, the word “envelope” doesn’t have anything to do with parcels. It actually refers to the aeronautical terminology for the physical limitations of space and/or technology.
Both the noun “envelope” & the verb “envelop” come from the Anglo-French word “envoluper” (“voluper” means “to wrap”). When speaking of air travel, the envelope means the operating threshold of an aircraft. To push an airplane past its speed or altitude limits would be to exceed, or push, its envelope.
“Pushing the envelope” entered our collective vocabulary thanks to author Tom Wolfe & his 1979 book, The Right Stuff, chronicling the early days of the American space program. The book stated that test pilot Chuck Yeager surpassed “the supersonic envelope”, and that a lot of pilots back then spoke often of “pushing the outside of the envelope”. Wolfe believed the metaphor likely originated with test pilots at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station here in Maryland back in the 1940s, based on the “envelope” of air or gas containers in balloons & airships.
According to Wolfe, “The ‘envelope’ was a flight-test term referring to the limits of a particular aircraft’s performance, how tight a turn it could make at such & such a speed, and so on. ‘Pushing the outside’, or probing the outer limits, of the envelope seemed to be the great challenge & satisfaction of flight testing.”
In most scenarios, the envelope is something to be broken through as a means of innovation. And so the pushing of an envelope means there’s danger & risk.
So, you see, it’s all about pushing boundaries, and has nothing to do with remaining stationary.
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