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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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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 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
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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... books.google.com/… –  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

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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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? biblegateway.com/passage/… –  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

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