Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Grumpy word usage post: Pushing ... the envelope

Right now, the New York Times online front page has as its central headline "Pushing the envelope in attacks on Obama" (the article itself has a different title).

This popular phrase originated in the world of aviation, and more specifically the interaction between engineers and pilots. The "envelope" of a plane refers to the calculated extremes of a plane's performance capabilities.

The phrase was popularized most famously in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff ("pushing the outside of the envelope ... seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test"). The point, obviously, is that an envelope has an outer surface, and that is what pilots were pushing against. Pilots were not trying to redesign the plane to give it a different envelope (i.e. they were not pushing the envelope) — that's what engineers did — but rather to push against the existing surface.

Wolfe's usage is correct, as is the more commonly seen "pushing the edge of the envelope." Incorrect, however, is "pushing the envelope", which is by far the most common form (in Google, 16 times more common than "pushing the edge").

Even in the aviation world, the phrase was soon shortened to "pushing the envelope". Be that as it may, I still find this usage somewhat irritating. I'm similarly annoyed by the usage of the now-common "I could care less" to mean "I couldn't care less": it just seems wrong to change a phrase in such a way as to make its intended meaning explicitly at odds with what it actually says.

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