Q&A: The origin of “showing someone the ropes”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we are roped into it…

Q: Hey AWC, I recently had a new person start at my workplace.

A: Wait, isn’t THIS where you work?

Q: Ummm no, this isn’t a job. We just discuss words and phrases once a week.

A: Oh yeah, so we do. Okay, continue.

Q: Well, anyway, I was asked to show the new person “the ropes” and it got me wondering about the origin of such a phrase. Because we don’t really have ropes where I work – just ovens, conveyor belts, ice, mannequins, fluffy dice and pigeons.

A: Where exactly DO you work?

Q: It’s not important. Any idea about “the ropes”?

A: Yes actually. Like many “ye olde sayings”, this one comes from the yo-ho-ho days of life on the seas.

Q: Sailing ships?

A: Exactly! And of course, one of the most important things you first need to learn when you board a ship is…?

Q: That’s easy! The quickest route from your cabin to the buffet.

A: Ahhh not quite. We’re not talking about a cruise ship, we’re talking about the days of proper sailing ships – ones with actual sails. The phrase was likely first used in the 18th century during the “golden age” of sailing, but it first appeared in print in 1840 as “knowing the ropes”.

Q: So “knowing the ropes” was all about learning how to sail a ship?

A: That’s right! There are a lot of ropes that need to be hoisted and lowered to ensure everything works properly on a sailing ship. If you get that wrong, you wouldn’t get very far at all.

Q: So it’s ropes on a ship. Hmmm okay. Any rival theories?

A: Yes actually. Around the mid-19th century, there is evidence of it also being used in relation to the theatre – being shown “the ropes” was all about raising and lowering the curtains and other set pieces. 

Q: My Uncle Chad once worked backstage at a theatre. He had a bad habit of accidentally wandering across in the background whenever a play was on. Apparently it was just a stage he was going through.

A: Groaaaan. 

Q: Anyway, so once you’ve been “shown the ropes”, you can also “know the ropes”?

A: True. In this case, “the ropes” is simply synonymous with knowledge of whatever situation you happen to be in. Be it a sailing ship, a theatre, or learning a new computer system.

Q: All this sounds a bit like learning the “ins and outs” of something.

A: It certainly does – although that phrase is older. “Ins and outs” is defined as ‘intricacies, complications of an action or course’ and according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it dates back to the 1660s.

Q: I guess on a ship, some of those ropes probably went in and some went out – so you could be shown the ins and outs of the ropes!

A: True. However, this phrase came before the ropes one, so it’s unlikely the ins and outs had anything to do with sailing ships.

Q: So where DID it come from?

A: One theory is that “ins and outs” relates to ploughing a field. The ins and the outs had to be in line in regard to where the plough entered and exited the soil.

Q: Who knew it had such a dirty explanation!

A: Haha, indeed.

Q: So to recap, being shown or knowing “the ropes” likely originated from learning all the ropes on a sailing ship. Although these days, it can be applied to anything figuratively if you’re learning something new, yeah?

A: Precisely. And will you look at that – we’ve reached the end of our rope for this week.

 

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