Someone who “knows the ropes” is a person who has a fundamental understanding of how something works. They are familiar with it, knowing the ins outs.
Example: I wanted to learn how to surf, so I hired someone to teach me the basics. One of the main problems I’m having is maintaining my balance on the board; I keep falling off! I don’t know the ropes just yet, but hopefully with practice I’ll get better.
In other words, he doesn’t have a basic grasp of how to surf yet, but he hopes that will change soon.
The Origin Of – Know The Ropes
The phrase “know the ropes” likely has a nautical origin. It probably comes from sailors sailing the seas on their ships, and here’s why:
When it comes to wind-powered ships, ropes, or lines, are important for navigating them through the vast waters of the ocean. Many of these lines are attached to the sails of the ship and are used to control the shape of the sail. This, in turn, impacts how the vessel moves around the water.
So ropes are an integral part of a ship. And if a sailor is going to be frequently using them, then he would need to be familiar with how they function. He would also benefit from knowing how to tie various knots, as that’s a skill that could come in handy on board a ship.
Hence, between managing the ropes for navigation purposes and tying knots, a sailor literally ‘knowing the ropes’ of a ship would be important indeed. So it’s possible the phrase started here and went on to become a metaphor used for things unrelated to boats.
This phrase, with its figurative meaning and also used in relation to sailing, appears in Two years before the mast, by Richard H. Dana in 1940:
“The captain, who had been on the coast before and ‘knew the ropes,’ took the steering oar, and we went off in the same way as the other boat.”
As you can see from the quote, Dana has quotes around the saying. This would suggest that it’s already a known expression at that time and is thus older.
Below you will see a pair sentences. The first one will use the saying. However, the second one will not; instead it will show you how to say the same thing, but without using the expression.
- Jeff knew the ropes when it came to fishing, so he decided to teach his daughter some of the fundamentals to get her started.
- Jeff had a good understanding of how to fish, so he wanted to teach his daughter the basics.
Note: The origins for most common idioms and phrases cannot be said with a certainty. What’s provided are theories that may be plausible to how a phrase originated, but not necessarily so.
In addition, quotes that contain a particular phrase may be taken from old newspapers, poems, or books. But this does not confirm that the phrase originated from these sources. In all likelihood, if an expression is being used in a newspaper, it’s probably already a well known saying and is from an older time.