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English Idioms and Phrases: Learn the ropes

Updated on November 14, 2012

Meaning

'To learn the ropes' means to learn something new and to get to know the proper method or way of doing something. Once you have learnt the ropes you can say the you 'know the ropes'.

"To be a great carpenter you need to learn the ropes" or "Steve will show you the ropes, he knows what to do".

Origin

This phrase has a nautical origin which is a very common theme in English idioms, possibly relating to the fact England were a seafaring nation. When sailors were on a boat they had to learn which knots and which types of ropes were best for a certain job, for example a certain knot may allow the rope to move (or have slack), and others would be good for the sails.

After they learnt which knot and rope was good for all of the jobs it was said they knew the ropes. The phrase still exists but we no longer use it just to describe ropes.

Alternatives or Synonyms

To learn something new, to know a skill.

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