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The meaning and origin of the expression: Know the ropes

Know the ropes

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Know the ropes'?

To 'know the ropes' is to understand how to do something. To be acquainted with all the methods required.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Know the ropes'?

Know the ropesIt seems obvious that this expression derives from the need to sailors to know how to tie knots to secure rigging on sailing boats. It may well have a nautical origin - sailors certainly did have to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn a myriad of knots.

However, there is also a suggestion that it comes from the world of the theatre, where ropes are also used, to raise scenery etc.

The first known use of the expression in print is a figurative one, that is, one where no actual rope is being referred to. It comes in James Skene's travel mémoire Italian Journey, 1802:

I am a stranger and... I beg you to show me how I ought to proceed... You know the ropes and can give me good advice.

Clearly, 'know the ropes' must have been in use in some context where real rope was being used before Skene wrote his diary, but it seems that no one wrote it down. The first printed example of 'knowing the ropes' which alludes to a context where actual rope would be present is in Richard H. Dana Jr's Two years before the mast, 1840:

"The captain, who had been on the coast before and 'knew the ropes,' took the steering oar"

That clearly has a seafaring connection, although it appears to be using the figurative meaning of the phrase, that is, 'the captain was knowledgeable', but without any specific allusion to ropes.

There are also early citations that come from the theatre. J. Timon, in Opera Goer, 1850 includes this:

"The belle of two weeks standing, who has 'learned the ropes'."

So, in what context trainees first we required to 'learn the ropes' we can't be certain. The nautical derivation seems more attractive and convincing, but the jury has to remain out on this one.

See other Nautical Phrases.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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