Shape up or ship out

Shape up or ship out is an idiom that first appeared in the mid-twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the idiom shape up or ship out, where came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

Shape up or ship out is an admonition to improve one’s work product, attitude, behavior, or performance or be fired or made to leave. The shape up portion of the expression refers to putting things into good order or coming up to exacting standards. The ship out portion of the admonition means to leave. The phrase shape up or ship out came into use during World War II in the U.S. Navy as an admonition to a sailor that he must either come up to the Navy’s standards or be transferred–perhaps to the brig! Returning World War II veterans brought the idiom home to civilian life.


Demands that he shape up or ship out were surfacing on social media and have found their lightening conductor in Galloway. (The Scotsman)

As the aggressive drive to upgrade sports facilities in the country gathers momentum, the Ministry of Sports has put contractors working on stadium projects on notice to shape up or ship out. (The Daily Nation)

Parliament has told the business rescue practitioners (BRPs) of South African Airways (SAA) to “shape up or ship out” as the process of saving the national carrier has drowned millions of rand, with no final rescue plan in sight after five months. (The Independent)

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