Throwing In The Towel – The Symbol of Surrender

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Throwing in the towel is an idiom that means you’re simply giving up on a particularly difficult task or situation. The expression resonates with the moment of conceding defeat or surrendering. It’s like waving a white flag, a phrase that vividly captures the act of giving up, particularly in challenging situations.

Idioms, like throwing in the towel, are fun, expressive sayings with a metaphorical meaning. They play an essential role in the English language because they give us ways to describe ideas and feelings in a way that other people can understand or relate to.

But what’s the story behind this expression, and how can you use it effectively in your conversations? My guide quickly breaks down the deeper meaning and usage of the idiom throwing in the towel, uncovers its origin, and provides a few variations, synonyms, and sentence examples. You can even quiz yourself at the end!

Throwing in the Towel—The Symbol of Surrender

What Does the Idiom Throwing in the Towel Mean?

The idiom throwing in the towel means giving up, surrendering, or admitting defeat. When someone says they are throwing in the towel, it indicates a decision to stop trying, often due to the belief that further effort or persistence is futile or impractical. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the idiom throwing in the towel means “to stop trying to do something because you have realized that you cannot succeed.” This phrase is commonly used in situations where individuals face challenges, setbacks, or difficulties and decide to abandon their efforts rather than continue the struggle.

We’ve all felt what this idiom represents in some way or another. As a mom of two kids, I’ve wanted to throw in the towel once or twice. Also, as a published author in both the indie and traditional sectors, throwing in the towel is something I contemplate daily. It’s a hard road with tons of ups and downs, and the downs can really get to you some days.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of throwing in the towel comes from boxing, where a trainer throws a towel into the ring to concede defeat on behalf of their fighter. In the figurative sense, the idiom is used to express giving up in any situation, not just physical contests.

Variations of the Idiom

Most phrases come in a few different versions because of how they’re used around the world or because certain contexts and situations alter them. Here are some variations of throwing in the towel you might come across. Just know they’re all correct and mean the same thing.

  • Toss in the towel
  • Throw down the towel
  • Throw in the towel
  • Drop the towel
  • Threw in the towel (past tense)

How Is Throwing in the Towel Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom throwing in the towel vividly conveys the act of surrender or admitting defeat.

In the following sections, we explore the various ways this expressive phrase is commonly used, examining different contexts and situations where individuals decide to relinquish their efforts. Additionally, we provide tips for using this idiom effectively, ensuring it resonates with the intended tone, and offer illustrative examples to showcase its application in real-life scenarios. 

What Are the Different Ways to Use Throwing in the Towel?

  • Admitting defeat: “After numerous failed attempts to repair the antique clock, Clarke finally threw in the towel and decided to consult a professional.”
  • Ending a pursuit: “Frustrated by the constant setbacks in launching his startup, Bellamy reluctantly threw in the towel and decided to explore alternative career paths.”
  • Conceding a disagreement: “In the interest of maintaining peace, Octavia decided to throw in the towel during the heated debate and agreed to compromise.”
  • Expressing frustration: “Overwhelmed by the complexity of the computer programming task, Indra threw in the towel, seeking assistance from a more experienced colleague.”

What Are Some Tips for Using Throwing in the Towel Effectively?

  • You can use it to express a sense of defeat or resignation in a situation.
  • It’s appropriate in informal settings, adding color to your language.
  • It’s not exactly a professional statement, so try to avoid using it during tense situations at work.
  • Be sensitive when using it in personal situations, as it conveys giving up when someone might need some words of encouragement.

Where Can You Find Examples of Throwing in the Towel?

This phrase has frequently appeared in sports commentary, literature, and movies because it’s often used to depict a moment of surrender or resignation, which works great in many contexts.

For the popular 2022 rap song by Lil Uzi Vert and Hotboii, the idiom was used in the lyrics as well as the title.

It’s also being used in several online publications, including:

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

“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)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Throwing in the Towel?

Throwing In The Towel Ngram
Throwing in the towel usage trend.

The idiom throwing in the towel originated in the boxing rings of the early 20th century. The act of throwing a towel into the ring was a signal from the boxer’s corner that the fight was over or that they were conceding.

It was used in print as early as 1913 in The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette through some boxing commentary:

“Murphy went after him, landing right and left undefended face. The crowd importuned referee Griffin to stop the fight and a towel was thrown from Burns’ corner as a token of defeat.”

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

With literal beginnings, it didn’t take long before it transitioned from its straight-up boxing context to a metaphor used in various life situations to indicate giving up or surrendering.

What Are Some Related Terms to Throwing in the Towel?

Use synonyms whenever you want to express the idea this idiom represents but don’t want to actually say throw in the towel. Keep the antonyms handy for times you wish to convey the opposite.

Throwing in the Towel—The Symbol of Surrender 1



Throwing In The Towel: Test Your Knowledge!

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What Have We Learned About Throwing in the Towel?

Throwing in the towel is a super useful idiom that captures all those moments of surrender or giving up, transitioning from its origins in the boxing ring to a metaphor used across various life scenarios.

It’s a reminder that sometimes, knowing when to stop can be as crucial as knowing when to fight. This phrase, with its vivid imagery and clear message, adds depth to our language and helps us express complex emotions and decisions.

We covered the deeper meaning, the phrase’s origin, its variations, and some synonyms and even tested you with a short quiz. Do you feel ready to use this expression now? For more breakdowns of the never-ending list of idioms and their meanings, keep following our articles on Grammarist!

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