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The site idioms.com suggests that the expression “on thin ice” has a European origin but, unluckily, it offers no evidence to support its view:

the idiomatic expression on thin ice originated from Holland, now known as Netherlands. Skating originated from there and skating on thin ice was a phrase commonly used especially when seas/rivers/streams freeze during the winter and then people skate over them. In some areas, the ice is thin and can crack, causing the skater to fall into the freezing water and possibly die if not saved.

According to the AHD the idiomatic expression on thin ice was first used by a US writer:

This idiom, which alludes to the danger that treading on thin ice will cause it to break, was first used figuratively by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Prudence (1841): "In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed."

But search in Google Books shows earlier usages such as:

From The Works of Confucius; Containing The Original Text, With a Translation. (1809)

Be constantly cautious! as when near a deep whirlpool, as though walking on thin ice .

Can anyone fix a more precise time period and geographical origin of the idiomatic expression?

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    Is there any reason to doubt that the idiom arose from several sources, and was probably, in some cases, imported from other languages.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 17, 2020 at 12:31
  • @HotLicks - that’s what I’d like to find out about this idiom. Thanks
    – user 66974
    Apr 17, 2020 at 12:32
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    It's such an obvious figure of speech that it probably had multiple origins in any region that has freezing winters. Apr 17, 2020 at 12:51
  • @KateBunting yes, but someone, somewhere put it down in writing and used it figuratively.
    – user 66974
    Apr 17, 2020 at 13:01
  • The conceit itself, of standing on the ice as emblemmatic of danger, is age old. Are you looking specifically for the first attestation in English of the precise phrase "on thin ice"?
    – TimR
    Dec 18, 2023 at 22:20

2 Answers 2

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According to the OED, for the specific phrase "on thin ice", they state:

"colloquial (originally U.S.). on thin ice: in a precarious or risky situation."

The earliest example they give for "on thin ice" is 1871, from "Dartmouth" (I don't know what that is):

"But dodging this point by the word possibility, he finds himself on thin ice and skates fast to the conclusion."

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    Dartmouth is a town in Devon. But the actual phrase 'on thin ice' appears in the 1809 publication OP mentions, and here on ELU 'as though' [walking] qualifies it as a figurative (metaphorical) usage. Apr 17, 2020 at 14:36
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Dartmouth university most likely but the source depends on how it’s used contextually, as most metaphors are. the phrase ‘skating on thin ice’ signifies a need to hurry/speed up for Emerson but it’s almost the opposite for Confucius, maybe. Too vague and he didn’t even speak English so those exact words are a translation anyway.

Emerson is the source and you should read his piece ‘Self Reliance’ for tips and perspective on sources of sayings like this.

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  • Dartmouth College, not university.
    – Lambie
    Dec 18, 2023 at 22:34

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