The Curious Autodidact

July 1, 2008

More Phrases from the Sea

Filed under: origin of phrases — Honilima @ 8:05 pm



To understand how to do something. To be acquainted with all the methods required.


know the ropesThere is some doubt about the origin of this phrase. It may well have a nautical origin. Sailors had to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn a myriad of knots. There is also a suggestion that it comes from the world of the theatre, where ropes are used to raise scenery etc.

The first citation comes in Richard H. Dana Jr’s Two years before the mast, 1840:

“The captain, who had been on the coast before and ‘knew the ropes,’ took the steering oar”

That clearly has a seafaring connection, although it appears to be using the figurative meaning of the phrase, i.e. ‘the captain was knowledgeable’, but without any specific allusion to ropes.

There are also early citations that come from the theatre. J. Timon, in Opera Goer, 1850 includes this:

“The belle of two weeks standing, who has ‘learned the ropes’.”

The nautical derivation seems more attractive and convincing, but the jury has to remain out on this one.


May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

Filed under: origin of phrases — Honilima @ 7:45 am

Arlington National Cemetery

Memorial Day had its origin at the end of the Civil War when on May 30th 1868 General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, honored the soldiers and sailors who had given their lives in the horrific civil conflict. He chose to honor the war dead of not only the victors but both the Union and the Confederate soldiers who were buried at Arlington, by decorating their graves with flowers. This was known as Decoration Day then some time after World War I this became known as Memorial Day, a day set aside to memorialize and pay tribute to all those who gave their lives in military service to the country. It is celebrated on the last Monday in May each year and is a United States Federal holiday.

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