Throw in the towel

Photo of author


The idiom throw in the towel, like so many idioms, was first used in a literal sense. We’ll look at the meaning of throw in the towel, where the phrase came from, its evolution, and some current examples of its use.

Throw in the towel was originally a prize-fighting or boxing term. When a fighter was unable or unwilling to continue fighting his opponent, then his representative would throw a towel in the middle of the ring to signal their fighter was finished. Fighters sweat and bleed in the course of a fight, and towels were readily available in their corner. These towels are always white. The term began to be used figuratively in the early 1900s to mean to give up, to surrender, to concede defeat. Interestingly, in the mid-1800s to late 1800s, fighters didn’t use towels to clean up during a bout, they used a wet sponge. Therefore, during the 1800s the term throw up the sponge was used to mean the same thing as throw in the towel, both literally and figuratively. Related phrases are throws in the towel, threw in the towel, throwing in the towel, has thrown in the towel.


He also touched on despair and indifference among youth, telling those attending World Youth Day that “it hurts me when I meet young people who seem to have retired before their time” and were inclined to “throw in the towel.” (The Deutsche Welle)

“If the talks fail, which is likely, the market should not entirely rule out the possibility that Saudi Arabia will give up and throw in the towel, and keep output high, at or above July’s level,” says Mrs Sen. (The Financial Times)

Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown admits players threw in the towel (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Want to know more idioms? Check out some others we covered: