LINGUIST List 5.40

Tue 11 Jan 1994

Sum: Pushing The Envelope

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  1. sharon shelly, SUM: "Pushing the envelope"

Message 1: SUM: "Pushing the envelope"

Date: Sat, 08 Jan 1994 11:13:36 SUM: "Pushing the envelope"
From: sharon shelly <>
Subject: SUM: "Pushing the envelope"

Many thanks to the forty-some-odd (!) people who responded to my query
on the idiom "pushing the envelope"!

There seems to be general agreement that the expression originally referred
to the "performance envelope" of (especially fighter) aircraft. Mike Lake
defines this "envelope" as "limitations on air speed, rate of climb and
descent, and rate of direction change within which a particular aircraft
can be safely and efficiently operated." Gregg Derrick and David Wigtil
add that various values such as velocity, altitude, cargo weight limits, etc.
can all be represented graphically; and that such a graph typically resembles
a "misshapen trapezoid" referred to as an "envelope". As several other
respondants pointed out, this usage represents a borrowing or extension of
mathematical sense of "envelope", i.e. "a curve or surface that is tangent
to all curves or surfaces of a family of curves or surfaces" (American
Heritage Dictionary).

In its original aviation context, then, "pushing the envelope" presumably
meant pushing a plane in test flight up to and even beyond its known
endurance limits in order to find out its exact capabilities. The idiom
is apparently American in origin, dating back (at least) to the late
1940's. It may have first referred to the breaking of the sound barrier
by test pilot Chuck Yeager (Brian Gessell informs me that the aircraft
involved was the X-1).

"Pushing the envelope", along with a lot of other "pilot-jargon", has been
greatly popularized by Tom Wolfe's _The Right Stuff_ (which I can see I'd
better get around to reading) and more recently, it seems, by the film "Top
Gun" (I'll pass, thanks). Thus the expression has been appearing more
frequently in what Art Medlar calls "techno-nerd conversations" both in
and out of the field of aviation.

The fact that such a techno-cretin as myself is (am?) now noticing the
metaphor "pushing the envelope" in the popular press demonstrates that the
original meaning has been expanded even further, as Rich Hilliard suggests:
instead of referring specifically to the performance limits of an existing
aircraft, "pushing the envelope" can mean "expanding the operating limits
of what it is reasonable to expect from a future system." From there it's
only a short step to the popular sense of "expanding the
frontiers" in just about any context.

Paul Kershaw makes an interesting observation: his sense is that the idiom
retains a slightly negative connotation of "going beyond what is considered
safe" (perhaps as in, "hot dog" pilots risking life, limb and expensive
equipment to show off...). For Kershaw, "if Jill is 'pushing the
she's doing something I'd never do." I don't think I noticed this negative
flavor in the press examples I was referring to, but will try to look them
up again....!

Meanwhile, thanks again to everyone, and do fly safely.
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