Q From Leo Scheps, Australia: What is the derivation of the term to throw in the towel, meaning to give up after a long struggle?
A It’s from boxing. Or rather, from prize-fighting, which preceded it. When a fighter in a mill (a pugilistic encounter) was doing badly and was obviously going to lose, his seconds would throw something into the ring to indicate they were conceding defeat on his behalf. At the time, the most readily available item was the sponge for wiping the blood and sweat off their man’s face.
So the earliest form of the expression was to throw up the sponge (occasionally to throw in the sponge), which dates from sometime before the middle of the nineteenth century. A good example is in that Australian classic Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, dated 1888: “But it’s no use giving in, Jim. We must stand up to our fight now, or throw up the sponge”. The form you give is rather more recent, dating from just after the beginning of the twentieth century. An early instance is in Jack London’s story The Mexican, published in the collection called The Night-Born in 1913: “Danny, battered and heroic, still kept coming up. Kelly and others near to the ring began to cry out to the police to stop it, though Danny’s corner refused to throw in the towel”. People sometimes advise somebody to chuck it in or throw it in as shortened forms, as ways of advising that some activity should cease.
The boxing ring is rich in such metaphors. Up to scratch refers to the line drawn on the ground to which boxers were brought for the encounter, to hit below the belt is an illegal act in general life as much as in that sport, while to throw one’s hat into the ring is to accept the challenge of a contest. Politicians (notoriously prone to in-fighting) who are lightweight or heavyweight acquire those descriptions from the sport, as do those who feel their country can punch above its weight in international affairs. If they are on the ropes however, they are taking a battering without anywhere to escape.