What does the idiom "Shape up or ship out" mean?

You are wondering about the meaning of the phrase Shape up or ship out, maybe you heard it in a TV show, movie or theater play. Although this idiom is not used very often, it enriches your capacity of expression and strengthens communication. In which case is the expression Shape up or ship out used and what is its meaning?

Meaning of "Shape up or ship out"


The idiom “shape up or ship out” is a warning that a person needs to improve their performance or behavior or face the consequences. The phrase is usually delivered as an ultimatum, and implies that the person must either make the necessary changes or risk being removed from the situation.


The phrase “shape up or ship out” can be traced back to the early 20th century. Its first recorded usage was in the 1903 novel "Pollyanna," by Eleanor H. Porter, in which the main character is advised to “shape up, or ship out.” The phrase first appeared in print in the American newspaper Concord Monitor in 1909. It is believed to have originated in the US Navy, where officers would use the phrase to discipline unruly sailors. It was also used by merchants and masters working on the Great Lakes during the same time. The phrase soon became popular across the US and began to be used in other contexts.


The phrase “shape up or ship out” is commonly used as a warning or ultimatum. It typically implies that a person must make the necessary changes or face the consequences. The phrase can be used in a variety of contexts, from business to education to family life. It can refer to the need for an employee to improve their work performance, or a student to study harder, or a family member to change their behavior. It is usually used to emphasize the seriousness of the situation and remind the person that there are consequences for not making changes.

Example Sentences

  • “If you want to keep your job, then you need to shape up or ship out.”
  • “If you don’t start studying harder, then you’d better shape up or ship out.”
  • “If you don’t start behaving better, then you’ll have to shape up or ship out.”

The meanings of the words in the "Shape up or ship out" idiom

Idioms with similar meanings in different languages

"Barking up the wrong tree" is an English idiom that means to pursue a mistaken or misguided course of action. In German, the similar idiom is "Auf dem Holzweg sein," which translates to "To be on the wrong track." This idiom emphasizes the idea that when you are pursuing the wrong course of action, you are not going to achieve your desired outcome.


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