On the Ropes

Meaning of Idiom ‘On the Ropes’

1. When used to regarding boxing matches, on the ropes refers to a fighter who has been forced back against the ropes by his opponent and is leaning on them for support, making it difficult to defend himself. 1Henry, Jean. How to Play the Game: American English Sports & Games Idioms. AuthorHouse, 2004.

2. When used generally to refer to a person, organization, business, or effort, on the ropes means that things are not going well and collapse or defeat is imminent. 2Henry, Jean. How to Play the Game: American English Sports & Games Idioms. AuthorHouse, 2004.,3Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Examples Of Use

“His business was on the ropes, and his marriage was on the rocks. Tom was having a very bad year.”

“The fighter was on the ropes by the second round.”

“With multiple accusations of sexual harassment, the director was on the ropes. When a video surfaced, his career was over.”

Origin

This idiom actually derives from the sport of boxing, where it is used regarding the first meaning, above. It has been used this way since the mid-1900s. Some sources fail to cite its use in boxing as an idiom, listing it only as the origin of the idiom’s more general use in the second definition. However, even when used in boxing, the expression ‘on the ropes’ is still idiomatic as it is not used literally. We may, for example, imagine a boxer sitting on top of the ropes, rather than being pushed up against the ropes. The word ‘on’ is used to mean against.

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Sources   [ + ]

1, 2. Henry, Jean. How to Play the Game: American English Sports & Games Idioms. AuthorHouse, 2004.
3. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.