On The Ropes – Phrase —Meaning and Origin


If someone is “on the ropes,” it means they are in a desperate or bleak situation.

Example: I’ve been sick all week. My main symptom is coughing, but my appetite has taken a hit too. While my health has been on the ropes lately, I am finally starting to feel better.
Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Between a rock and a hard place
2. In a pickle
3. Being in hot water
4. In a jam
Boxers In Ring, The Saying "On The Ropes"
Boxers fight inside of a ring. Sometimes, they will be backed up against the ropes.

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.

Example Sentence(s)

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.

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