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.
    • 1865 June 1, Charles Sumner, “Eulogy”, in Documents of the City of Boston, for the Year 1865, volume II (Containing Documents from No. 44 to No. 115, Inclusive), Boston, Mass.: J. E. Farwell and Company, [], published 1866, OCLC 659327717, page 137:
      When he [Abraham Lincoln] became President he was without any considerable experience in public affairs; nor was he much versed in history, whose lessons would have been most valuable. As he became more familiar with the place, his facility evidently increased. He had "learned the ropes," so he said.
    • 1869, Samuel H[ough] Terry, “Introductory”, in The Retailer’s Manual: Embodying the Conclusions of Thirty Years’ Experience in Merchandizing, Newark, N.J.: Printed for the author, by Jennings Brothers, OCLC 20029521, page 16:
      He thinks he needs no education for that work; it is just as natural to him as it is to eat and drink; and he is ready at once to undertake the management of the largest retail house in town, only needing to be shown a day or two, "till he learns the ropes."
    • 1869, [John Denison Vose], chapter XII, in The Gay Boys of Old Yale!: A Book of Wit and Humor. Showing the Scrapes & Escapes of College Life, and How the Boys “Go It” at New Haven, Hinsdale, N.H.: Hunter & Co., publishers, OCLC 13628208, page 66:
      “[...] I am very ignorant in regard to your rules and usages here, but undoubtedly one can soon learn all the particulars.” / “O, yes,” rejoined Derby, with a smile, “one can soon ‘learn the ropes.’ [...]”
    • 1886, Stephen F. Blanding, “On Board the Guardo”, in Recollections of a Sailor Boy: Or The Cruise of the Gunboat Louisiana, Providence, R.I.: E. A. Johnson & Co., [], OCLC 35997422, page 37:
      Phil had "learned the ropes," so he showed us the principal points of interest aboard ship.
    • 1970, Stephen J. Miller, “Learning the Work of an Internship”, in Prescription for Leadership: Training for the Medical Elite (Observations), Chicago, Ill.: Aldine Publishing Company, →ISBN, page 124; reprinted as The Medical Elite: Training for Leadership, Abingdon, Oxfordshire; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2017, →ISBN, page 124:
      Evidently they know that failure to learn the ropes may preclude learning anything else. If the intern does not learn whom to consult and how to secure his help, he will not learn what the consulting physician can teach him about medicine.
    • 2005, Mark A. Abramson; Paul R[oger] Lawrence, “The Biggest Secret in Washington”, in Mark A. Abramson and Paul R. Lawrence, editors, Learning the Ropes: Insights for Political Appointees, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, →ISBN, pages 6–7:
      Many of the appointees who have signed on to stay for the second term have indeed "learned the ropes" and in many cases now know how to work with career civil servants and engage them for maximum productivity.
    • 2013, John Maynard, “Reg ‘Punter’ Hart”, in Aborigines and the ‘Sport of Kings’: Indigenous Jockeys in Australian Racing History, 3rd edition, Canberra, A.C.T.: Aboriginal Studies Press, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, →ISBN, part III (Ahead of the Field: More Indigenous Australian Jockeys), page 128:
      It is still best to keep young riders out in the bush until they have learnt the ropes. Those old bush jockeys, they were men not boys. You learnt the tricks of the trade quick … If you rode two bad races they would crucify you[.]
    • 2014 October 8, Matt Huckle, “Is this Britain’s most inspirational fitness model?”, in The Daily Telegraph[1], London: Telegraph Media Group, ISSN 0307-1235, OCLC 635239717, archived from the original on 11 October 2015:
      [Blake] Beckford was diagnosed with a chronic bowel disease that left the lining of his colon covered in ulcers, cutting short any chance of his getting into the fitness industry just when he'd started working towards it. 'I was diagnosed at about 19, so I was still very much learning the ropes,' he says.
  2. (informal) To learn some skill requiring specialist knowledge.


See also[edit]


  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.