Jargon Genesis: Pushing the Envelope

This is perhaps the most surprising of the Jargon Genesis series so far. When I previously considered the phrase, “pushing the envelope,” I assumed its origin had something to do with seeing how much one could fit into a paper envelope. I pictured an eager administrative assistant stuffing an envelope full and then adding one more piece of paper, really “pushing the envelope.”

But I was sorely mistaken! We have written record that during World War II, a test pilot’s job was to “push the envelope,” speaking of the mathematical envelope, not the paper one. This envelope is defined as the locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves. Huh?

In English, there are standard limits of various factors within which pilots can safely maneuver their aircraft, i.e. speed, altitude, wind speed, engine power, etc. This is their envelope. A test pilot’s job was to push those limits, a dangerous profession but useful for verifying the safety of the current limits and determining points of failure when the envelope was pushed too far. Yikes!

In 1979, Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff about test pilots and the early US space program. He wrote, "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."

From this book’s popularity, the phrase “pushing the envelope” was adopted into other industries, including the world of business. So, next time you say, “Let’s push the envelope on this project,” I hope you get the same thrill as a test pilot, hurtling through the air at a speed or altitude likely to be unsafe for proper maneuvering of his/her aircraft. Have a good flight and a safe landing!