Push the Envelope—A Simple Phrase for Going Beyond

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Alison Page

Alison has worked full-time in the writing industry for over ten years, using her knowledge and life experience to create online content, fiction and non-fiction. Alison has published two novels and has ghost-written several non-fiction equestrian books for a client. Alison has been a full-time professional content writer for almost ten years and loves her work as a wordsmith.

To push the envelope means to extend the boundary of what is possible or to take a risk by going further than others think is acceptable

Idioms such as push the envelope are expressions or phrases whose meanings are not deducible from the literal definitions of the individual words they comprise. Typically carrying a figurative or culturally specific meaning, idioms enhance the richness, nuance, and depth of the English language, contributing to more vibrant and expressive communication.

In this article, I explore the idiom’s deeper meaning, origin, and proper usage. I also provide tips for effectively using it, sentence examples, and related terms and phrases. Once you’ve finished reading the article, why not push the envelope and test your knowledge with our quick quiz? Let’s go!

Push the Envelope—A Simple Phrase for Going Beyond

What Does the Idiom Push the Envelope Mean?

The idiom push the envelope means to exceed established limits, take things to the edge, or explore new boundaries, often in a daring or innovative manner. It implies pushing beyond conventional norms or pushing the boundaries of what is considered possible or acceptable.

Merriam-Webster defines the idiom as “to go beyond the usual or normal limits by doing something new, dangerous, etc.” Moreover, the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “to behave in more extreme ways, or to try new things that have not been acceptable or tried before.”

Picture this: you’re at a tech startup facing a tight deadline. Instead of sticking to the conventional, you propose an out-of-the-box solution, pushing the envelope with innovative ideas. Despite initial skepticism, your approach meets the deadline and exceeds expectations, highlighting the success of pushing the envelope in problem-solving.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of push the envelope originates from aviation, referring to the flight envelope encompassing all possible aircraft maneuvers. Figuratively, the idiom implies pushing the boundaries of what’s possible or taking calculated risks.

How Is Push the Envelope Commonly Used in Context?

From encouraging innovation to challenging boundaries, this section will delve into the diverse applications of the idiom. Discover different scenarios, tips for effective usage, and examples that showcase the dynamic nature of push the envelope in language and communication.

What Are the Different Ways to Use the Idiom Push the Envelope?

  • Encouraging innovation: “In this company, we encourage employees to push the envelope and come up with creative solutions to everyday problems.”
  • Testing sporting limits: “The high-board diver decided to push the envelope during the competition, attempting a new, daring dive that surprised everyone.”
  • Artistic creativity: “The artist always pushes the envelope in her work, experimenting with new techniques and surprising, flamboyant styles.”
  • In education: “My college professor urges us to push the envelope in our research projects, encouraging us to explore unconventional approaches.”
  • In business: “This company really pushed the envelope by entering new markets and introducing innovative products to stay ahead of the competition last year. Let’s hope their daring pays off!”
  • Encouraging personal growth: “As an experienced life coach, my goal is to help my clients push the envelope in their personal development, challenging them to step well outside their comfort zones and break boundaries.”
  • Acknowledging technological advances: “My partner’s tech company is well-known for pushing the envelope in their field, constantly developing cutting-edge products that redefine the market.

What Are Some Tips for Using the Idiom Push the Envelope Effectively?

  • Understand the context: The phrase is typically used in professional or creative contexts to encourage innovation or risk-taking. So, before using the idiom, ensure you understand the context of the conversation or situation. 
  • Communicate clearly: Whether your goal is to encourage creativity, overcome challenges, or explore new ideas, be sure to put your reasons clearly so that others understand exactly why you want them to push the envelope in a given situation.
  • Avoid overuse: Overusing any idiom can dilute its meaning and reduce the impact it can have in conversation. Keep the phrase for situations where risk-taking or pushing boundaries is warranted.
  • Tailor to your audience: Tailor your use of the idiom to match your audience’s familiarity with business jargon, and adjust your language so that everyone understands your message.

Where Can You Find Examples of Push the Envelope?

Examples of the idiom can be found in various contexts, ranging from business and technology to creative endeavors. Explore literature, news articles, and industry discussions to witness how this idiom conveys a spirit of innovation, boundary-pushing, and creativity. 

From ambitious project plans to groundbreaking ideas, instances of pushing the envelope can be spotted in domains where individuals or groups strive for progress and excellence.

Here’s an example of it being quoted by an online news publication:

Kik, the popular North American chat app, is continuing to push the envelope in terms of chatbot functionality, launching a new feature that will allow users to chat to a concierge bot within a conversation with a fashion and beauty bot, according to VentureBeat. (Business Insider)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Push the Envelope?

Push the envelope Ngram
Push the envelope usage trend.

The idiom push the envelope was popularized in the early 1980s, following the publication of the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. This book chronicled American pilots who tested high-speed aircraft, including the early astronauts. 

Tom Wolfe quoted pilots using “pushing the outside of the envelope” to describe challenging speed records and other aerial feats. The envelope in question is the flight envelope, which includes all possible aircraft maneuvers. 

However, the idiom most probably originated among American pilots during World War II. 

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

After the publication of Wolfe’s book, the term push the envelope migrated into everyday English to be used figuratively. Businesses quickly adopted the idiom to mean extending the boundaries of what is normally possible, and the phrase quickly became common parlance in many offices during the 1980s.

What Are Some Related Terms to Push the Envelope?

I like to give people some related terms when using idioms in conversation to make it easier to understand what I mean. Synonyms and antonyms can be especially handy, so I’ve included a few below:

Push the Envelope—A Simple Phrase for Going Beyond 1



  • Play it safe
  • Conform to standards
  • Avoid risks
  • Keep to the beaten path
  • Be conservative
  • Stick to the status quo

Push the Envelope: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned about Push the Envelope?

Push the envelope is a modern idiom that means breaking previous boundaries and taking risks. The literal use of the phrase comes from aircraft testing and refers to the flight envelope, which includes all mid-air maneuvers.

Interestingly, unlike many idioms, this expression is widely used in a professional business setting as well as in casual conversation. However, to avoid confusion, be sure your audience understands the figurative meaning of the phrase before using it.

Using idiomatic expressions like push the envelope can improve your command of the English language and make your prose much more interesting, provided you use them in the correct context.