Wednesday, July 19, 2006

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).

The 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 or push the edge of the envelope in a variety 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).

Today's Challenge: Take the Proverbial Plunge

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." Other examples use the same verb take:

take the plunge
take the heat
take the Fifth
take the fall
take the rap

Given the first letters of the verb and the noun in each idiom, see if you can complete the other three-word idioms below that fit the same structure:

1. w_______ the s_________

2. r________ the g________

3. p________ the t________

4. b________ the h _______

5. c________ the f _______

6. b________ the b _______

7. h________ the c _______

8. p________ the f _______

9. s________ the c _______

10. s________ the f _______

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

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. bite the bullet or break the bank 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.

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