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This was said by one of my mates while retelling a story. The story runs that there was a court being held, and there was a recording-clerk as well. But this was a humor story, and the story continued that everybody was telling the recording-clerk to take out what was previously said, to the point that the clerk lost his temper and "dropped the pen and threw up the sponge."

Does this saying mean that he resigned?

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Can someone please explain what was wrong about my questioin? is it the title again? – Thursagen May 30 '11 at 21:59
"threw the sponge", or "threw in the sponge"? – Henry May 30 '11 at 22:36
Actually, "threw up the sponge" – Thursagen May 31 '11 at 7:09
Actually, ask your mate what it meant. Asking teh internet to guess is ridiculous. – z7sg Ѫ May 31 '11 at 13:55
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Contrary to the other answers, the Oxford English Dictionary lists only "throw (or chuck) up the sponge", and not "throw" or "throw in".

Its first quotation, from a slang dictionary of 1860, says "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."

I think Alain is confusing it with "throw in the towel".

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+1 thanks a lot Colin for the correction. The funny thing is that I started with 'up' and at the last minute changed to 'in'. Back to 'up' in the answer now. But the origin is still valid; isn't it ? – Alain Pannetier Φ May 31 '11 at 22:41

To throw up the sponge is a common expression which originated in the world of boxing and is now an everyday phrase.

Boxers as you know use sponges often dipped in vinegar to wipe the sweat and blood off their face. When one of the fighters is no longer physically able to continue and wishes to give up the fight, the convention is that he or rather his trainer throws his sponge in the middle of the ring. The other fighter is then declared the winner.

So that to throw up the sponge means to give up the fight out of sheer exhaustion or disgust or to acknowledge defeat.

A common variant is "to throw in the towel" where the towel is obviously serving the same purpose as the sponge.

As for dropping the pen this is just circumstantial to the clerk's activity and I don't believe there is an actual idiomatic expression behind this part of the sentence.

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I suppose since the boxing ring is raised from the floor, you throw the sponge upwards to get it there hence threw up the sponge. When I read it though, I imagined someone throwing up a sponge - as if they had eaten it, so maybe throw 'in' the sponge makes more sense! – rmx May 31 '11 at 10:49
@rmx: no, the sponge doesn't get thrown up to get to the middle of the ring. It was already at the boxer's seated head height in the corner, after all. – user1579 May 31 '11 at 15:33
@Mari-LouA, Thanks, duly updated. – Alain Pannetier Φ May 26 '15 at 2:06

(A) I think you mean "threw the sponge", not "through the sponge".

(B) This is not an idiomatic usage, at least that I am aware of. It probably literally means that the clerk got so frustrated that he put down his pen, and threw his sponge at someone.

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What sponge? Why does he have a sponge? – Thursagen May 31 '11 at 7:09
Maybe it was a metaphorical sponge? – RedGrittyBrick May 31 '11 at 15:06
@Third idiot: The one mentioned in the question. – Marcin May 31 '11 at 16:48
As to why he has a sponge - have you never seen a clerk keep a sponge to wet their fingers? – Marcin May 31 '11 at 17:15

This answer is purposed as a supplement to the foregoing answers.

Since the expression "to throw in the towel" was broached above, I thought to connect 'sponge' and 'towel'. I hope that this conjectured connection helps the OP.
Observe that of the 2 etymologies for the verb 'clout', the second one (that I enumerated [2.]) concerns 'towel'. I am guessing that in a fight, a 'towel' functions similarly as a 'sponge';
so maybe the etymology extends to 'sponge' also.

clout (v.)
"to beat, strike," early 14c., from clout (n.), perhaps
[1.] on the notion of hitting someone with a lump of something, or
[2.] from the "patch of cloth" sense of that word (compare clout (v.) "to patch, mend," mid-14c.).

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No, a sponge and a towel are two entirely different things, that are likely both to be used by a boxer's support team. It is not helpful to guess about meanings when others have given a complete answer. The fact that "clout" means hit and formerly also meant cloth is a complete irrelevance. – Colin Fine May 27 '15 at 16:02

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