Throw in the towel
What's the meaning of the phrase 'Throw in the towel'?
To throw in the towel (or, to throw the towel in) is to give up, to avoid further punishment when facing certain defeat.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Throw in the towel'?
This little expression of course derives from boxing. When a boxer is suffering a beating and his corner want to stop the fight they literally throw in the towel to indicate their conceding of the fight. This earliest citation that I have found of this is in the American newspaper The F ort Wayne Journal-Gazette, January 1913:
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.
It was very soon after that that the phrase began to be used in a figurative sense, to indicate giving up in non-boxing contexts; for example, in the Australian author Clarence James Dennis's WWI patriotic novel, The Moods of Ginger Mick, 1916:
No matter wot 'e done. It's jist a thing
I knoo 'e'd do if once 'e got the show.
An' it would never please 'im fer to sling
Tall tork at 'im jist cos 'e acted so.
"Don't make a song uv it!" I 'ear 'im growl,
"I've done me limit, an' tossed in the tow'l."
Throwing in the towel was preceded by throwing in the sponge. Sponges were a common ringside accessory as early as the 18th century. Throwing in the sponge was then the preferred method of conceding defeat. This is recorded in the mid-19th century, in The Slang Dictionary, 1860:
'To throw up the sponge,' to submit, give over the struggle, - from the practice of throwing up the sponge used to cleanse the combatants' faces, at a prize-fight, as a signal that the 'mill' is concluded.
Curiously, throwing a hat into the ring has pretty much the opposite meaning to throwing in a towel - one means join a contest and the other means leave it. Despite the surface similarity, the two phrases are unconnected.