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: What’s your favorite vegetable? I obviously have no idea, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s asparagus. Or, uh… broccoli! (In other words, I am taking a guess as to what it could be.)
The Origin Of ‘Go Out On a Limb’
The origin of this phrase might be rooted in tree climbing. The term “limb” can refer to the large branches of a tree. Thus, if somebody were to climb a tree, they could literally go out on a limb by crawling out onto one of its branches. That sounds dangerous, though, so it’s not something I would recommend doing.
So… why would a person climb a tree, anyways? There are a few reasons: One is that some people might do it simply because they find it to be fun. Another reason is that maybe someone’s hungry and they see a piece of fruit hanging from a branch and so they climb up to get it. A third reason is that someone’s pet cat has got itself stuck high up in a tree and so its owner climbs up to help.
Whatever the reasons are, the point is that literally climbing a tree and going out on its limbs is likely where the phrase comes from, and it’s a risky thing to do, indeed. It then later became a metaphor for when someone puts themselves at risk for another. The person taking the risk, 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.”
So the term goes back to at least the year 1895.
- Alright, who ate the last frozen burrito? I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that it was Jeff.
- We can’t figure out how our dog managed to get out of our backyard, but going out on a limb, I would say he must have jumped over the wooden fence.
Note: The origins of common phrases, or history of particular idioms can be difficult to trace, so finding the precise time a saying came into existence is no walk in the park. What you will usually find on this site are moments in history where an expression started to be used on a widely-known basis.
For instance, a lot of popular sayings can be spotted in old newspapers from several decades ago, but think about that for a second. If an idiom is being used in the media, it seems apparent that everybody already knows about it! What does that mean? Well, it means the origins of the phrase are probably much older.
For the most part, What you find on this site are early usages of particular expressions, usually coming from aged books, plays, poems, or newspapers. It’s meant to give you an estimate on how long certain phrases have been used for, but not necessarily where they originated from.