Know The Ropes – Meaning, Origin


Someone who knows the ropes is a person who has a fundamental understanding of how something works. In other words, they are experienced at something and thus are familiar with the basics of it.

Example: Learning how to surf is tough. One of the main problems I’m having is maintaining my balance while standing on the board. I keep falling off! While I don’t know the ropes just yet, I think with a little more practice I’ll get better.

Synonyms / Similar Phrases:

1. Know the ins and outs
2. Know the score
3. Up to speed

The Origin Of – Know The Ropes

The phrase “know the ropes” likely comes from sailing and boating. Indeed, some ships rely on the wind to push them through the waters. On such ships, ropes, or lines, are important because they help with navigating and steering the ship. Many of these lines are attached to the ship’s sails and can be controlled in a way that effects the shape of the sail. The shape and direction of the sails impacts how the vessel moves through the water.

Basically, ropes are an integral part of a ship. So a sailor would need to be familiar with how they function if he was to do his job properly. Hence a sailor literally “knowing the ropes” of a ship was important indeed.

Anyways, this phrase, with its figurative meaning appears in Two years before the mast, by Richard H. Dana, 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.”

Since the phrase is in quotes in the… quote, this would suggest that it’s already a known expression at that time and is thus older.

Example Sentences

Here is an example of this phrase in a sentence:

  • Having someone in the house that knows the ropes of cooking is great!

Here is an example of a related phrase

  • Jeff knows the ins and outs of fishing, so he can probably give us some tips if we ask him.

Tip: Let me show you the ropes on how to navigate around this site so you can find more common idioms and phrases like this one! Don’t worry, it’s easy. Just scroll up to the top of the page and then tap the menu. Select a letter from the menu and you should be taken to a list of phrases. Simple!

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