The phrase go out on a limb has two meanings:
1. Putting yourself in a risky or precarious situation in order to help someone.
2. Taking a wild guess at something or expressing an opinion that might not be shared by others.
Example: Jordan’s friend asked: “Do you know which vegetable is my favorite?” To this, Jordan said: “I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s asparagus. (In other words, he is guessing as to what it could be.)
Synonyms/Related: take a wild guess, hazard a guess, take a shot in the dark, risk my neck
The Origin Of ‘Go Out On a Limb’
Where does the phrase “go out on a limb” come from? Its origin might be rooted in tree climbing. How so? Because the word “limb” can refer to the branches of a tree. So if someone climbed a tree and went out onto its limbs, they would, in other words, be going out onto the tree’s branches.
Perhaps the phrase’s “taking a risk” meaning also derived from tree climbing, since there is clearly danger involved in this activity. Indeed, what if the tree’s branches break while someone is climbing on them? They would plummet to the ground and possibly get injured, or worse. Though speculative, this risky behavior must have eventually turned into a metaphor—if someone takes a risk for you, it’s as if they are “going out on a limb.”
Having said that, let’s take a look at how old this expression is. The earliest I could find it in print is from the Steubenville Daily Herald newspaper from 1895, where it reads:
“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.”
Since the expression’s earliest appearance dates back to the year 1895, then we know it is at least 120 years old.
- I’m going out on a limb for you here and you aren’t even going to thank me for my help?
- We can’t figure out how our dog managed to get out of our backyard, but going out on a limb, he probably jumped over the wooden fence.
Note: The origin of some expressions is not clear. When that happens, what you will see listed on the page instead are theories about how it originated. If no plausible sounding explanations exist, then you’ll still (usually) be able to find a quote that contains the saying on the page.
The quotes that contain these popular sayings are there to give you an idea on how old it is. For example, if a phrase’s first known appearance is in a book from 1855, then you know the phrase it at least that old.