If someone is “on the ropes,” it means they are in a desperate or bleak situation.
Where Does ‘On The Ropes’ Come From?
The phrase on the ropes possibly comes from boxing. How so? Well, boxers typically fight in a boxing ring, which is square in shape. Along the edges of the ring are ropes. Usually, a boxer doesn’t want to be backed up against the ropes because it could impair their movement.
However, a boxer might take a heavy punch during a match that knocks them off balance. To help stabilize themselves, they might grab onto the ropes. Or, if they were knocked down by a punch, they might use the ropes to help them get back on their feet. Either way, a boxer that is literally on the ropes is probably in a bad spot. And that’s what this idiom means today—being in a difficult situation.
Anyways, the earliest appearance of this saying that I could find is from the year 1820. It’s used in Blackwood’s Magazine from this year as a boxing term:
“At the close of one round, when Bill had got his adversary on the ropes, he went over him in a summerset, in a way that we do not not remember to have seen practised either before or since.“
Here is an example of this expression in a sentence.
- Tom thinks that his job is on the ropes because of how frequently he shows up late.