What does the idiom "know the ropes" mean?

The phrase know the ropes is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of know the ropes.

Meaning of "know the ropes"


The idiom ‘know the ropes’ is used to refer to someone who is experienced and knowledgeable in a particular activity or field, especially one that involves a complex set of rules or procedures. It is often used to indicate that the person knows how best to handle any situation that may arise.


The origin of the phrase ‘know the ropes’ or ‘learn the ropes’ goes back to the 1600s when it was used in sailing ships to describe the process of learning the various duties of a sailor. The term ‘rope’ in this context refers to the many lines and cables attached to the sails and rigging of a ship and the idea is that a sailor would learn how to manipulate and manage these in order to properly operate the ship.

By the 1800s the phrase had acquired a more general meaning and was used to refer to any activity that involves understanding a variety of skills and procedures. In this context the ‘ropes’ refers to the array of rules and regulations surrounding a certain activity and it is up to the individual to learn and understand these in order to be successful.


The phrase ‘know the ropes’ is typically used in the present tense when talking about a person’s current knowledge of a subject or activity. It is rarely used in the past tense, as it implies that the knowledge gained is ongoing and not necessarily complete. For example ‘He knows the ropes when it comes to business’ suggests that the person has a good understanding of how business works but may still learn more.

The phrase is also often used to show admiration for someone’s understanding and ability. For example ‘She really knows the ropes when it comes to accounting’ implies that the person has a great deal of experience and expertise in the field of accounting.

Example Sentences

  • He's been working in the industry for years, so he knows the ropes.
  • It takes a while, but once you know the ropes it becomes easy.
  • I'm still learning the ropes, but I'm getting there.

The meanings of the words in the "know the ropes" idiom

From One Language to Another: Idioms in Translation

Translating idioms from one language to another can be a tricky task, as the cultural context behind an idiom can be difficult to capture. For example, the French phrase "avoir le cafard" translates to "to have the cockroach," which means to feel down or depressed. Similarly, the Chinese idiom "????" (j?ng d? zh? w?) translates to "frog at the bottom of a well," which refers to someone with a narrow view of the world.


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