Push the Envelope

Origin of Push the Envelope

This phrase first became popular in literary writings following the publication of the book, The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe in 1979. The book is about space program. He uses this phrase in the first chapter of this book where it goes thus; 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.” It means to approach limits of all the possibilities, or what is acceptable in the existing situation.

Meaning of Push the Envelope

It is a figurative expression, which means stretching the boundaries. The phrase is used in the context of moving past all the limits of that which has already been done, or that which is the accepted standard of this age or time. By 1978, this phrase appeared in, and the following year Wolfe picked it up and demonstrated its use as, a piece of technical jargon in general language.

Since World War II, it has been in use in aeronautics, describing upper and lower limits of engine power and speed, etc. Thus, this term describes pilots, determining how far their planes would go. Simply, it implies taking something to the next level of its development, progress, or evolution.

Usage of Push the Envelope

This phrase is mostly used in the workplace environment. It can refer to someone doing a great job – better than what he has done in the past. These days, this phrase is applicable to other fields of life, concerning something done beyond the actual boundaries, such as the ultimate effort of a race driver. In the world of politics, it implies the time required to get back strength in order to dominate the world, or the political opponent.

Literary Source of Push the Envelope

Tom Wolfe has used this expression in his book, The Right Stuff, where he writes;

“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.”


It is true that Wolfe did not coin this term, but he used it in such a way that it became general jargon, rather than a term specific to engineering and mathematics.

Literary Analysis of Push the Envelope

In his book, Wolfe has vividly described the life of test pilots during the 50s and 60s, where this phrase appears. It is about those test pilots busy in experimentation in post WWII America. They are engaged in using high speed planes, and documenting stories of Project Mercury, in which astronauts were chosen for the NASA space program.

The author wanted to figure out the reason why astronauts took the dangerous path of space flight, and then he recounts the enormous mental and physical risks they took during training. In fact, the phrase pushing the envelope serves as jargon in the field of aeronautical engineering, meaning “the known limits of a more safe performance.”

It shows a set of curves used to describe maximum performance, and function of a plane within given parameters. The test pilots usually have to take their aircraft beyond such limits, and fly the plane higher and faster than it had ever gone before, to establish what aircrafts could do.

Literary Devices

  • Jargon: the phrase is a jargon conveying hidden meaning and has been used in a technical piece of writing