Header image of books

Know the ropes

Q From John Lanahan, Berlin: Could you please explain the expression, To teach someone the ropes? Is this a naval or circus term at all?

A It pairs up with know the ropes, which is a lot more common. Learn the ropes is also often found. All are from seafaring.

You only have to look at pictures of old-time sailing ships to get the point. A vast amount of cordage supported the masts as well as the running rigging that controlled the sails and yards. Every rope or line had a purpose and every one was essential to control the vessel; loosen or pull the wrong one at a critical moment and all hell might break loose. So it was vital that the crew knew the ship’s ropes: to learn them was the basic skill of any sailor.

The expression is first recorded in Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast in 1840: “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.” It’s almost certainly a lot older as a seafarer’s term, because Dana is already using it in the current figurative sense of knowing how to do something or being fully knowledgeable or experienced.

Search World Wide Words

Support this website!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Aug. 2008

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-kno2.htm
Last modified: 16 August 2008.