Give up and avoid further punishment when facing certain defeat.
The phrase arose from boxing, or from prize-fighting, which preceded it. When a boxer was doing so badly that it was obvious he would lose, one of his support team would toss a towel into the ring to signal that the boxer conceded defeat.
‘Throwing in the towel’ was preceded by ‘throwing in the sponge.’ Sponges were a common ringside accessory as early as the 1700s, used to cleanse the combatants’ faces of blood and sweat. At that time, throwing in the sponge was the preferred method of conceding defeat.
The earliest citation of ‘throw in the towel’ appears to be in the American newspaper The Fort 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.”
An earlier example of the phrase being used in a figurative sense is in the 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.”
Politicians, who are prone to in-fighting, may be called lightweight or heavyweight, all of which comes from the sport of boxing. Then there are those who claim their country can punch above its weight in international affairs. If they are on the ropes however, they are taking a battering without any recourse, because they have no towels to throw into the ring.
Unless they have crying towels, of course.