I just used the phrase "to go off the reservation" -- in the context of the workplace, to go in a direction that management might not approve of -- and realized how strange it is. What are the (historical and present-day) connotations of that term?

2 Answers 2


The Wiktionary entry for "off the reservation" three definitions for the expression:

  1. (literally) To leave a reservation to which one was restricted.
  2. (US, politics) To break with one's party or group, usually temporarily.
  3. (by extension) To engage in disruptive activity outside normal bounds.

The second definition also finds an entry in Safire's Political Dictionary which additionally also adds a note on its origin:

The metaphor is rooted in traders' lingo, referring to Indian reservations in the days when unscrupulous whites would trade "firewater" for goods, and off the reservation was a lonely and dangerous place for an aboriginal American to be.

  • Thanks. I was partly wondering if the phrase was offensive -- not really, it seems.
    – McGarnagle
    Nov 6, 2012 at 20:10
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    @dbaseman: I think maybe you've not taken those connotations fully on board. In most contexts, if you told someone that they were off [the] reservation, that would be extremely offensive. Nov 6, 2012 at 21:27
  • @FumbleFingers I was thinking more of referring to oneself going off the reservation, rather than accusing someone else of doing it. But you're right, that would be begging for an indignant retort and/or lawsuit in some contexts.
    – McGarnagle
    Nov 6, 2012 at 21:31
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    @dbaseman: Ah right. Yeah - I can't see any danger of giving offence if you use the term of yourself. Except if there are any native Indians involved in the conversation, in which case you might be sailing a bit close to the wind. Nov 6, 2012 at 21:41
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    @FumbleFingers As a sailor, I take offence to that last comment. :) Nov 6, 2012 at 23:35

For an Indian to go off the reservation is to engage in disruptive activity outside normal bounds, so yes, it is offensive. Please do not use it. Reservations were prisons set up for people who were pushed off their own land. They are place of drunken misery and poverty.

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