learn the ropes

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Of nautical origin. 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. To learn the basics or master introductory knowledge.
    Work slowly and cautiously until you have learned the ropes.
  2. To learn some skill requiring specialist knowledge.
    • 1918, Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, Folio Society edition, 1979, pp 98-99:
      And, of course, on such momentous occasions as these, Manning was in his element. None knew those difficult ropes better than he; none used them with a more serviceable and yet discreet alacrity. In every juncture he had the right word, or the right silence; his influence ramified in all directions, from the Pope's audience chamber to the English Cabinet.

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  1. ^ Snelling, Charles (1981) Nomenclature of Ships, Naval Sea Systems Command