Tim Bowen sheds some light on the origins and definition of the phrase to know the ropes.

The expression 'knowing the ropes' is often applied to the procedures and tasks that relate to a particular occupation. New employees are often told that it will take them a while to get 'to know the ropes'. More experienced colleagues might volunteer to 'show them the ropes' or 'teach them the ropes'. When you know the ropes you understand everything there is to know about the tasks and procedures relating to a job.

Like many other phrases, this expression has its origins in the world of sailing. Many of the sailing ships that plied the oceans of the world before the age of the steamship had complex systems of masts and sails that were controlled by ropes. Senior members of the crews of these ships were the ones who knew the ropes and understood how to use them to control the sails. The ambition of any sailor was to know the ropes as quickly as possible.