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I know that the phrase, "I'm going out on a limb here" means either to take a risk or hazard a guess, but where does it come from? As in, what did it originally refer to before it became an idiom?

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great nickname! – Joe Blow Jun 12 at 5:09
It's interesting that now in the automotive industry we now say things like "crash" figuratively, or "put your foot down", etc. This comes from an earlier, woodier phase of history! – Joe Blow Jun 12 at 5:10

8 Answers 8

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This one is actually quite straightforward. It alludes to going out on a branch of a tree. Etymonline says that the figurative sense is from 1897. The Phrase Finder supplies a quote from 1895:

The first uses of it in a figurative sense, with no reference to actual trees or climbing, come from the USA at the end of the 19th century. For example, the Steubenville Daily Herald, October 1895:

[...] If we get the 14 votes of Hamilton we've got 'em out on a limb. All we've got to do then is shake it or saw it off.

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Ah! That type of limb! Thanks! – Django Reinhardt May 8 '11 at 22:45
The fact that this sentence was followed by an explanatory All we've got to do then... strongly suggests that the phrase wasn't known before then. But here's an 1884 reference (again American), showing that the underlying concept already existed...… – FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 13:37
Yes, that's true, FF. – Django Reinhardt May 20 '11 at 12:58
@RegDwight What does hazarding a guess mean? Is this related to taking risk? – Geek Aug 30 '13 at 16:50

The OED gives for "limb", sense 4: "A main branch of a tree".

The image is pretty obvious when you know this, I think.

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I think this is a supremely adequate answer with precious little 'fat'. Apart from a superfluous "I think", which I'm hardly in a position to make bones about. With such transparent imagery, there's little point in listing historical usage or pontificating about 'origins'. – FumbleFingers May 8 '11 at 23:11
@FumbleFingers: Why, thank you. – Colin Fine May 9 '11 at 12:08
@FumbleFingers - But surely we need to know who first issued this utterance, and on what date??!! (Given the available accuracy of timekeeping at the time, though, we only require time resolution to the nearest millisecond.) – Hot Licks Nov 26 at 0:01
The comment link I posted years ago doesn't work properly now, but it was probably this from 1884: a similar dilemma with the man who, while standing out on a limb, made the fatal mistake of cutting the limb off between himself and the tree. The concept is trivial, and exactly when it become referenced more often in print also seems somewhat trivial/meaningless to me. – FumbleFingers Nov 26 at 14:25

It is likely to be about the risk of climbing onto a branch of a tree.

This states that it was used by Steubenville Daily Herald in 1895:

"We can carry the legislature like hanging out a washing. The heft of the fight will be in Hamilton country. If we get the 14 votes of Hamilton we've got 'em out on a limb. All we've got to do then is shake it or saw it off."

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Beaten by three seconds by RegDwight! – Django Reinhardt May 8 '11 at 22:46

The branches of a tree become progressively thinner and weaker as you proceed further outward from the center of the tree's main trunk. Thus, the further you proceed "out on a [tree] limb" the greater the danger you put yourself in.

It's why a cat who pursues a squirrel to the outer branches of a tree puts itself (and its meal) at great risk: the outer branches are able to support the weight of the squirrel alone but not the combined weight of squirrel-and-cat, and both may fall.

The same would apply, for instance, to a person chasing a cat or a leopard chasing a monkey.

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I'm going to go out on a limb here, and totally dismiss the reference from the Herald above as being not in the real sense as I know it. This seems to indicate a series of actions designed to move an opponent to a position whereby they are trapped and can be killed of - a sort of "give em enough rope" expression. My understanding of out on a limb, is that others see a branch and believe it to be too weak to hold any sort of weight. I, however, by being an expert on tree mechanics totally believe it is possible to walk on it to pick the apple. Despite being told and warned, I go out on the limb and heyho, I pick the fruit. I have trusted my instict, gone against all popular thinking and backed a seemingly dangerous and costly action, but I know without doubt is the correct course. I would say this term comes from a tree, or possibly maritme, with beams and sail arms in a storm.

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Welcome to English Language & Usage @Hurst Vanrooj. While I don't agree with your answer, I have a few suggestions on how to improve it. Firstly, edit it to break it up into paragraphs, to avoid the "wall of text" effect. Next, use the spell check feature of your browser - see how-to-answer. Finally, your answer will carry more weight if you support it with references. – andy256 Dec 1 '14 at 2:43

It is interesting that a word study on the Hebrew word(Strongs H5585) for opinions (2 Kings 18:21) root is divided in mind as a branch outmost. To say that I'm going 'out on a limb' on this on means that my opinion is a stark difference from the status quo but I going to voice it anyway.

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To "go out on a limb" is to follow a path that is "dead end," or "cul de sac" where one can be cut off (in the case of the limb of a tree, quite literally), by an enemy, with no safe path of retreat.

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from the bible.... Zachius, the tax collector, wanted to see Jesus as he was entering the town but he was too short so he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree, out on a limb. Just about that time jesus walked under and said "Zachius come down, I need a place to stay tonight." Zachius came down and was so moved by Jesus that he offered half of what he owned to the poor. So, Zachius took a chance, and was rewarded by Jesus' presence and the spirit of generosity.

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Any references? – Mohit Nov 11 '13 at 5:52
@Mohit The Bible?… – Django Reinhardt Nov 11 '13 at 10:11
@DjangoReinhardt - Please add it in answer, not in comments. Even if something is definitive, it helps if there is reference provided for future visitors. Particularly Bible, which I understand has been translated by different people and exists in numerous versions. – Mohit Nov 11 '13 at 18:57
I don't ever recall seeing any version of this story that implied that Zachius "went out on a limb". Rather, he simply climbed up the main trunk of the tree. To gain the height needed to compensate for his short stature there would have been no need to go out on the limb. – Hot Licks Nov 26 at 0:05

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