I want to know when the phrase learn the ropes was first used?

closed as off-topic by Cascabel, Drew, user66974, Rory Alsop, Wrzlprmft Jan 29 '17 at 10:56

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  • 1
    Hi @Carol Polcovar, welcome to ELU. Please include with your question any research or exploration into the topic you yourself have done. Doing so is helpful to people trying to answer your question, and increases the odds of receiving a satisfactory response. – freeling10 Jan 29 '17 at 3:53
  • It's a nautical expression, easily going back to 1000 BC. – Hot Licks Jan 29 '17 at 3:57

Phrase Finder gives the following:

know the ropes


To understand how to do something. To be acquainted with all the methods required.


There is some doubt about the origin of this phrase. It may well have a nautical origin. Sailors had to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn a myriad of knots. There is also a suggestion that it comes from the world of the theatre, where ropes are used to raise scenery etc.

The first citation comes in Richard H. Dana Jr's Two years before the mast, 1840:

"The captain, who had been on the coast before and 'knew the ropes,' took the steering oar"

  • I remember that Dana commented on the sailors' talking about "laying out in the sun." It's amusing to realize that in 1840 people were using "lay" in this way and that there was a Harvard man around to worry about it. My take on that book is that our language has not changed nearly so much as California has. – Airymouse Jan 29 '17 at 1:27

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