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 really sick these past few days. Being stuck in bed and having no appetite is no fun at all! Even though my health has been on the ropes lately, I think I’m starting to finally get better.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Between a rock and a hard place
In a pickle
Being in hot water
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.

‘On The Ropes’ Origin

It’s believed that the origins of this phrase come from boxing. This is why:

Being on the ropes is considered a bad place to be in boxing. Why is that? Because boxers typically fight in a ring and along the edges of the ring are ropes. When a boxer is backed into a corner (or they’re up against the ropes), their movement is severely restricted. As a result, this makes it a lot more challenging for them to dodge incoming punches from their opponent.

Moreover, a boxer who is hit with a few heavy punches can easily be thrown off balance. To prevent themselves from falling down, they might try to grab onto the ropes. Hence, if a boxer is literally on the ropes, that means they are in a tough spot.

So anyways, it looks like this boxing term went on to later be used as a metaphor when referring to people who were in difficult situations. These people having a rough time are like boxers were are “on the ropes.”

The earliest appearance of this saying that I could find the year 1820. It is written in Blackwood’s Magazine, and the phrase is being used 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.

So when did it develop it’s figurative meaning? I’ll find out about that soon and update this page when I do.

Example Sentence(s)

Here is one example of this expression being used in a sentence.

  1. Tom made a big mistake at work. As a result, his job is on the ropes. He’s not sure if he’ll be working there for much longer.

Note: We have a list with hundreds of popular sayings with their meaning included. But sometimes, an idiom’s origins is unclear. That’s annoying when it happens, but when it does, what you’ll see listed on a page are explanations for how the saying may have originated. If no explanation is given, there will at least be a citation of it. These citations make it possible to see how far back in history these expressions go.
Keep in mind, that if I quote a source because it used the phrase, this does not mean it originated from said source. In all likelihood, if the phrase is being used in something like a newspaper, then it’s probably already a known one at that time.