Where Does The Phrase 'Push The Envelope' Come From?

The English language is a notoriously difficult one to learn. There are several reasons why, and a primary one is the tricky issue of spelling. As The Conversation states, Spanish is an example of a language where letter sounds don't tend to change from word to word, but English frequently throws curveballs at learners.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that so many common English sayings make perfect sense to practiced fluent speakers, but absolutely cannot be taken literally (and naturally will be at first). Who wouldn't you touch with a bargepole, for instance? What are you doing with a bargepole in the first place? The English language really can be a minefield. The phrase "push the envelope" is another befuddling one.

Its meaning, to innovate and push boundaries, is familiar to many, but the origins of the term may not be. There isn't a physical envelope being pushed, of course, and interestingly, there never was.

PerĀ Mental Floss, the envelope in question was not a physical one that winds its way to recipients through the postal service. Instead, the term reportedly refers to the capabilities of aircraft. According to writer Tom Wolfe in his "The Right Stuff," "The envelope was a flight-test term referring to the limits of a particular aircraft's performance."

The 'envelope' and the development of flight

Today, we're more than familiar with the tremendous speed at which technology advances and older gadgets are superseded. In just decades, VCR tapes were unseated by DVDs and Blu-ray discs, which are rarely bought with the success of streaming services. In 2019, CNBC reported that streaming platforms such as Hulu and Netflix had enjoyed sales that were up by 1,231% since 2011, while DVD sales had decreased by 86% since 2008. All of this is due in no small part to the fact that the industry continued to innovate, to push the envelope.

"[Push the envelope] comes from the aeronautical use of envelope referring to performance limits that cannot be exceeded safely," Merriam-Webster reiterates. Though the phrase seems to have begun life as an aeronautical metaphor, its context has since been expanded. Today, pushing the envelope can refer to any trendsetting or creative efforts in any field.

Humankind would never have reached the moon without technicians and pilots who pushed the envelope. By the same token, though, we wouldn't have achieved much of anything at all without other innovators who pushed the envelope in their own ways.