'Throw in the Towel': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 7, 2023

What does 'throw in the towel' mean? If you've been asking yourself the same question, then you're in the right place. This article will reveal all you need to know about this common idiom.

In short:

"To throw in the towel" means to admit defeat and give up on something that is no longer working.

What Does 'Throw in the Towel' Mean?

The phrase 'throw in the towel' is a popular idiom synonymous with giving up. If you're doing something and you are losing, or it isn't working out, you can stop trying because you've realized it was impossible or too difficult.

For instance, you might decide to throw in the towel if you've been trying to keep indoor plants, but they always die, and you can't seem to figure out how to keep them alive.

In which case, you could say:

I've tried everything to keep these plants alive, but I'm ready to throw in the towel. 

When you throw in the towel, it's because you've been trying to do something, and it hasn't worked out. It's a form of defeat. You can't give up on something you haven't tried yet.

This phrase is an idiom, which means that you can't interpret its meaning literally based on the individual words. You just have to know what it means.

Where Does 'Throw in the Towel' Come From?

Before anyone ever said 'throw in the towel,' they used to say 'throw in the sponge.' In fact, that's a variant you can still find nowadays. The saying originates from the mid-1800s in the boxing ring, where sponges were kept nearby to soak up all the sweat and the blood. Before long, people were talking about 'throwing in the sponge' as a way to say the boxer would give up on the fight because they were losing.

Since then, sponges have been replaced by towels, and hence, now the popular idiom has replaced the word 'sponge' with the word 'towel' but has maintained the same intended meaning. If a fighter wanted to give up the fight, they or their coach would throw a towel into the middle of the ring to indicate they were ready to admit defeat.

According to phrases.org, one of the earliest uses of this phrase was in January 1913 in The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette:

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.

Examples In Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning and origin of the phrase 'throw in the towel,' let's look at some example sentences that use this idiom. Note that since it functions as a verb, in some of the below examples, you'll see it conjugated into different tenses.

Let's pray he doesn't throw in the towel before he finds the one.

We threw in the towel after he beat us each five times at chess.

I'd planned to write in my diary every day but I threw in the towel after a week. 

I can't believe you're already throwing in the towel; don't you have any willpower?

She never wanted to throw in the towel because she was afraid of judgment

They really tried to make it work but they had to throw in the towel when they couldn't find a venue.

Though the journalist had more questions, he threw in the towel as he knew he wouldn't get answers.

I need some backup over here or I'm going to throw in the towel real soon.

The coach had high hopes for her team but she had to throw in the towel when she saw the opposition. 

I was this close to throwing in the towel but your words of encouragement really gave me hope.

Other Ways to Say 'Throw in the Towel'

So what if you want to say that you or someone else is giving up, but you don't want to use this particular idiom? Don't worry; there are many other ways to say it.

Here are some of them:

  • Say uncle (or cry uncle)
  • Knuckle under
  • Throw in the sponge
  • Quit
  • Relent
  • Concede
  • Admit defeat

Concluding Thoughts

When you 'throw in the towel' with someone, it means you have decided to give up. This idiom is to be used when you have been trying to do something, but the circumstances have proved too difficult, and you are admitting defeat.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more! 

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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