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Word Origin: envelope

Origin: 1988 Long before 1988, in the early years after World War II, push the envelope was on the cutting edge (1951) of aviation. It referred to the envelope, or limit of performance for an aircraft, and test pilots like Chuck Yeager who had "the right stuff" (in the phrase popularized by Tom Wolfe's best-selling 1979 book) were always on the edge of danger, pushing the envelope. But it was only in about 1988 that we pushed the envelope of pushing the envelope beyond the fields of aviation and space so that it stretched to fit any enterprise. We began to speak of such matters as "pushing the envelope of taste," to take a 1991 example from the Wall Street Journal. Astronomers with the Hubble telescope, criminals with alibis, movie directors with scenes of violence or absurdity, con artists, and corporate raiders can now be said to be pushing the envelope in their various fields of endeavor. We have many ways of saying it. Sometimes it is the edge of the envelope that we expand or stretch as well as push, whether in aircraft speed, computer power, campaign finance, or lifestyle. So in 1992, for example, Marilyn Quayle, wife of Vice President Dan Quayle, explained that she went rollerblading in neon tights because "I like anything that stretches the edge of the envelope a little bit."
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Word Origin: envelope