On The Ropes – Phrase —Meaning and Origin


If someone is “on the ropes,” it means they are in a desperate or difficult situation. In other words, they are having a tough time.

Example: I’ve been sick all week. My main symptoms are coughing, a runny nose, and my appetite is low. I guess you could say that my health has been on the ropes lately, but I am finally starting to feel better.

1. Between a rock and a hard place
2. In a jam
3. In a pickle
4. In hot water

Boxers In Ring, The Saying "On The Ropes"
Boxers fight inside of a ring. Sometimes, they get backed up against the ropes. Is this where the phrase originates from?

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 practiced either before or since.”

Example Sentences

Here is an example of this expression in a sentence.

  • Tom’s job is on the ropes because of how frequently he shows up late to work.

Similar examples:

  • I find myself in a pickle because the power to my house has been out for hours and I’m worried that the food in my fridge will spoil soon.
  • I accidentally broke a piece of art at the museum and now I am in hot water with the staff working there.

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