The Grammarphobia Blog

Pushing the etymology

Q: I believe “push the envelope” is related to test flights. As a plane approaches Mach 1, the air envelops it and behaves denser. So, to “push the envelope” originally meant to reach the point where the plane was pushing a lot of air that was enveloping it. I’m not sure where I heard this, but I believe it’s right.

A: Thanks for sharing your recollection, but “push the envelope” appears to be derived from the term “flight envelope,” which dates back to the 1940s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED‘s first citation for “flight envelope” is from a 1944 issue of the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society: “The ‘flight envelope’ covers all probable conditions of symmetrical manoeuvring flight.”

The dictionary defines the term as “the set of limiting combinations of speed and altitude, or speed and range, etc., possible for a particular kind of aircraft or aero-engine.”

The expression “push the envelope” first appeared in print – or at least in public print cited by the OED – in a July 3, 1978, article in the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology:

“The aircraft’s altitude envelope must be expanded to permit a ferry flight across the nation. NASA pilots were to push the envelope to 10,000 ft.”

However, a WNYC listener who was a “simulator jockey” (a technician who maintained and operated a flight simulator) in the US Air Force from 1967 to ’71 remembers seeing the expression in print in internal USAF safety bulletins around 1969.

Unfortunately, he says those bulletins were classified. Too bad! If one could be found, we might be able to antedate the expression to 1969.

At any rate, the OED says “push the envelope” was popularized by its appearance in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the space program:

“One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’…. [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “push the envelope” now means to increase the capabilities of a technology, exceed existing limits, or be innovative.

By the way, some readers of the blog have suggested that “push the envelope” is derived from “performance envelope,” but that term didn’t show up in print until the late 1980s, when it was used in a more general sense to refer to the performance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

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