learn the ropes

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Of nautical origin: in the past, the phrase “he knows the ropes” written on a seaman’s discharge meant that he was inexperienced and only familiar with a ship’s principal ropes.[1]


learn the ropes (third-person singular simple present learns the ropes, present participle learning the ropes, simple past and past participle learned the ropes or learnt the ropes)

  1. (originally nautical, informal) To learn the basics or master introductory knowledge.
    Work slowly and cautiously until you have learned the ropes.
    • 1886, Stephen F. Blanding, Recollections of a Sailor Boy: Or, The Cruise of the Gunboat Louisiana:
      Phil had "learned the ropes," so he showed us the principal points of interest aboard ship.
  2. (informal) To learn some skill requiring specialist knowledge.

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  1. ^ William L. Brackin (July 1991), “Military Courtesy”, in Naval Orientation (NAVEDTRA; 12966), Washington, D.C.: Naval Education and Training Program Management Support Activity; United States Government Printing Office, OCLC 681753020, page 7-19.