The Grammarphobia Blog

Do we know the ropes?

Q: I’ve heard that “show ’em the ropes” is of theatrical origin, not nautical, as Pat suggested on WNYC. The ropes controlled the stage machinery. Sailors didn’t use the term “ropes.”

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines “know the ropes,” “learn the ropes,” and “understand the ropes” as to “be experienced in or familiar with some customary action, practice, etc.”

And “show someone the ropes,” the OED adds, means “to teach or explain to someone the customary ways of doing something.”

The dictionary has both nautical and theatrical examples of these expressions dating from the 19th century, but the nautical examples are somewhat older.

That’s not conclusive, of course, and the earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t help—it’s not nautical or theatrical, but merely uses the expression in the sense of being experienced.

In the 1802 entry from James Skene’s diary of a trip to Italy, the author asks a local merchant for advice about how to meet the Pope: “I am a stranger and … I beg you to show me how I ought  to proceed…. You know the ropes and can give me good advice.”

However, the OED’s next two citations for the usage are clearly of nautical origin.

In his 1840 memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana writes, “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.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

And in The Green Hand, a sea story by George Cupples in the December 1848 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the third mate says, “He’s in my watch, and the captain wants him to rough it out; so show him the ropes, and let him taste an end now an’ then.”

The OED’s earliest example for the theatrical usage is an 1850 sketch by John Timon in The Opera Goer (1852), by Ike Marvell: “The belle of two weeks standing, who has ‘learned the ropes.’ ”

In our searches of literary and news databases, we found a somewhat earlier example, from an 1846 issue of the Musical Gazette, that combines the two usages:

“As a ‘land lubber’ must learn the ropes to be a sailor, so must an ‘unmusical lubber’ learn a proper mode of guiding his hand and arm, to be a player.”

And we’ve also found an example in which the usage appears in a punning reference to tightrope walking. A report in the Dec. 3, 1859, issue of Punch discusses a European trip by P. T. Barnum and the French daredevil Charles Blondin, who crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope:

“Barnum has bought up Blondin, ropes and all, and takes him to Europe to show him the ropes there, and to let him wander upon foreign strands (as the poet says) till he gets a good balance at his banker’s, and of course a man who can keep his balance anywhere will have no difficulty in doing that.”

We’ve also come across an interesting paper by Frederic D. Allen in the 1893 issue of Harvard Studies in Classical Philology that notes a similar usage in ancient Greece.

“The smith’s tools are called the ‘ropes of his art’—a figure borrowed from seamen’s parlance. So our figurative expression ‘know the ropes.’ ”

We doubt that the classical usage is the source of our figurative expression. But is ours of nautical origin?

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says flatly that “know the ropes” is derived “from the days of sailing ships, when skill in handling ropes was essential for any sailor.” We’ll merely say perhaps.

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