Italian expression of the day: ‘Gettare la spugna’

Italian expression of the day: 'Gettare la spugna'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Don't give up on learning this simple phrase.

There are some Italian phrases that translate directly from English – like essere al settimo cielo, or be in seventh heaven.

There are others – acqua in bocca – that you’ll need someone to explain to have any hope of understanding.

And then there are those that almost directly translate, but are just far enough removed that a literal translation renders them completely nonsensical.

For most anglophones, gettare la spugna – literally, to throw the sponge – falls into the last category. 

Can you guess its meaning?

It doesn’t mean to throw your toys out of the pram, or have a tantrum.

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Nor does it mean to cut loose a tight-fisted friend who’s ‘sponging’ off you.

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It means to throw in the towel – in others words, to give up, to admit defeat.

Mi sa che è ora di gettare la spugna.
I think it’s time to throw in the towel.

Lei faceva di tutto per riparare il sistema, ma alla fine ha gettato la spugna e se n’è andata.
She did all she could to fix the system, but in the end she gave up and left.

In Italian, as in English, the idiom comes from boxing, and can be traced back to the early 20th and late 19th centuries. 

When a boxer was clearly defeated, someone in their corner would throw the towel or sponge that had been used to wipe down the fighter’s sweaty head and torso into the ring. This would bring an immediate end to the match and stop the contestant getting more hurt than was necessary.

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Although “throw in the towel” is far more common in English, the use of sponges in the boxing ring actually pre-dates the use of towels, and “throw in the sponge” can occasionally be heard in some contexts.

Sponge or towel, you can still sometimes see the practice in use today, although usually a wave of a towel or some other object from a coach is enough to catch the referee’s attention.

For those of us who aren’t boxers with coaches, meanwhile, it’s up to us to know when to gettare la spugna.

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Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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