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
Recently added or updated
Latrinalia; Charon; True blue; Nakation; Hands off?; Who coined forecast?; Vigintillion; Hingle; Bookaneer; Pig sick; Adimpleate; Deodand; Ilk; Fowler’s Modern English Usage; Skint; Vellichor; Galoot; Crizzling; Caparisoned; Volleyballene; Trove; Smithereens; Worry wart.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!