What Does “Pushing the Envelope” Mean?

pushing the envelope meaning

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In an office setting, the expression ?pushing the envelope? means to test and, ultimately, exceed the current limits. It can refer to an individual, a department, or a company. The expression comes from the beginnings of modern-day aviation, when pilots used to continuously test the boundaries of the flyable portion of the atmosphere, also referred to as the envelope.

A Deeper Look into the Origins of ?Pushing the Envelope?

The expression became part of the common language after Tom Wolfe, a well-known journalist in the US, published a book about the space program in 1979:

“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.” ? Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979

Nevertheless, the term ?envelope? was already used in mathematics. In this area of expertise,?Envelope refers to ?the locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves?. More specifically, these intersections lead to a perfect circle centered around the origin. Naturally, this term also became common among pilots and other aeronautics professionals.

The expression ?flight envelope? appeared in 1944, during the Second World War. It refers to ?all probable conditions of symmetrical maneuvering flight?. It’s true that the first use of the expression ?pushing the envelope? was registered well before Wolfe?s book. However, it was the well-known author who made it popular.

Pushing the Envelope Synonyms

  • pioneer
  • forge ahead
  • blaze the trail
  • test the limits

Pushing the Envelope in a Sentence

John’s really doing a great work, he’s been pushing the envelope around the office by asking the though questions!


Your girlfriend has really been pushing the envelope with that missed date last night!

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