July 19:  Push the Envelope Day

Today is the anniversary of the first true space flight in 1962. Air Force pilot Bob White took the experimental aircraft the X-15 to a record altitude of 314,750 feet, pushing the envelope and breaking the 50 mile boundary separating the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. White’s flight established a world record that still stands for altitude achieved in a winged aircraft. For his feat of daring, Walker became the first pilot to earn astronaut wings (1).

Black rocket aircraft with stubby wings and short vertical stabilizers above and below tail unitThe word astronaut comes from Greek: astron, “star” + nautes, “sailor.” The Russian equivalent is cosmonaut, which is also from Greek: kosmos, “universe” + nautes, “sailor.”

Today we hear the expression push the envelope in a variety of contexts relating to attempts to “exceed the limits of what is normally done”; in other words, attempts to be innovative, as in: The computer company is trying to get its software engineers to push the envelope in developing a new approach to computing. The three-word idiom comes from the field of aviation and was originally used to describe the exploits of pilots like Bob White who attempted, but did not always succeed, in pushing the limits of a plane’s capabilities either in speed or altitude. Within the envelope, the pilot was safe; beyond it, there was uncertainty and risk (2).

Push the envelope is just one of many three-word idioms (expressions that don’t make sense when translated literally) in English that follow the pattern: verb + “the” + noun, as in “bite the bullet.” Here are five more examples, all beginning with the verb “take”:

take the plunge

take the heat

take the Fifth

take the fall

take the rap

Given the first letter of the verb and the noun in each idiom, see if you can complete the three-word idioms below:

  1. w_______ the s_________
  1. r________ the g________
  1. p________ the t________
  1. b________ the h _______
  1. c________ the f _______
  1. c________ the m _______
  1. h________ the c _______
  1. p________ the f _______
  1. s________ the c _______
  1. s________ the f _______

Today’s Challenge: Take the Proverbial Plunge

What are some examples of figurative expressions or familiar idiomatic phrases that follow the pattern Verb + “the” + Noun, as in “take the plunge” or “push the envelope”?  Brainstorm as many as you can; then, select one and use it as the title of short poem or paragraph.  For more examples of three-word phrases see the list below today’s Quotation of the Day.  Play around with your expression’s meaning, both literal and figurative, as well as considering the action as expressed in the verb.  Compose your poem or paragraph, and use your three-word idiom as its title.

Quote of the Day: Before you push the envelope, open it up and see what’s inside.  –L’ Architecte Karp

break the bank, clear the air, cross the Rubicon, draw the line, drink the Kool-Aid, fly the coop, foot the bill, hit the deck, hit the hay, hit the road, hit the jackpot, hit the roof, hit the spot, hold the fort, hold the line, hold the phone, kick the habit, kick the bucket, make the grade, take the Fifth, take the rap, turn the tables

Answers: 1. weather the storm 2. run the gamut or run the gauntlet 3. pass the torch 4. bury the hatchet 5. chew the fat 6. cut the mustard 7. hit the ceiling 8. press the flesh 9. stay the course 10. straddle the fence.


1 – Wolverton, Mark. The Airplane That Flew Into Space. American Heritage Summer 2001 Volume 17, Issue 1

2 – Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Miffline Company, 1997.