How did "give up" start to mean to quit?

  • Etymology Online says this use dates from the 12th century. Nov 2, 2015 at 23:26
  • 1
    In this particular sense of to give up, the OED only has examples from the 17th century: 3. intr. To leave off; to cease from effort, leave off trying; to stop. Also, to succumb. a1616 Shakespeare Cymbeline (1623) ii. ii. 46 She hath bin reading late, The Tale of Tereus, heere the leaffe's turn'd downe Where Philomel gaue vp. 1714 Swift Some Free Thoughts upon Present State Affairs (1741) 13 They have been..very near giving up in Despair.
    – WS2
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:30
  • See also english.stackexchange.com/questions/67309/…
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:39

6 Answers 6


"Give up" is almost a word-for-word translation of surrender (sur = over/above/up + render = to give, present), so it seems to be an Anglosaxon version of a French/Latin word. It has been used for much longer 400 years but was probably popularised through its use in the King James Bible:

30 When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

John 19:30 King James Version (KJV)


In French, we have the word: "se rendre" = to render itself. Implicitly, it is "to render itself to the winner". To let him/her decide about your future. It is close to the meaning "to abandon" if you think that for many religions your daily life is controlled by destiny (to render itself to destiny is likely a very used concept in old books) and other similar concepts.

I suspect that with the tradition of hiding the reflection in English, "se rendre" turned into "to render/give" and the particle "up" was necessary to explicit a specific meaning, as do all phrasal verbs.

Note also that "surrender" is likely to be the pronunciation of "se rendre" by an English teller. Coincidence or I think not.

  • 1
    Interesting, but do you have anything to back it up? Sep 16, 2017 at 20:49

Give up is also word to word equivelant of German aufgeben (auf = up, geben = give).

My guess is that in old times, people who didn't make any more active actions in pursuit of their interest, gave the matter up to the deity up above in the sky (i.e. god).

With time the original meaning of giving it to someone/something else was forgotten, and it came to mean only the part of stop actively trying to do something by yourself.


Google dredged up this great answer, buried in this Reddit comment to the question "ELI5: Why is the word "up" used so often in seemingly inappropriate ways? How can I "give up" or "fill up"?"

The 'up' in 'give up' is absolutely metaphorical! Without realizing it, you even acknowledge this later in your post:

"Give up your freedom," or gun, or virginity, or whatever is being held by the person of lower position (power/social standing/ legal standing/ etc.)

In none of those examples, except perhaps virginity among unadventurous couples, is one party literally 'above' the other. The metaphor at play is 'more power = higher in literal, above-sea-level altitude.'

Then read this same deleted user's next comment, in the chain.

Yes, again, hierarchic language often represents social station with 'height' and 'lowness,' but first, this is inherently a metaphor -- the article you link to doesn't address this at all -- and second, even in English this isn't always the case. A boss is sometimes called a 'big boss,' for instance, and never a 'high boss.' People everywhere still understand themselves within a social hierarchy of some sort, but this doesn't mean they understand their social superiors to be physically, literally above them. Instead of saying 'he is more important than I,' we often say something to the effect of 'He is above me.' This is precisely what a metaphor is -- using the language of space to describe a parallel abstract concept, in this case relative status.

To address the article on metaphor you link to, it states that:

A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object.

The subject here is status within a hierarchy, and the otherwise unrelated object is altitude.

See this article dated December 5 2007. Just edit this post, if you find more posts on Reddit that asked this question.

  1. Why do you think "giving" is part of the etymology in forgive?

  2. Pardon is an "etymological synonym" of forgive.

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    Aug 1, 2022 at 1:25

The one holding high ground is understood to have the advantage. “Giving up” seems to mean “I am relinquishing the high ground”.

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    This "answer" begs the question, it doesn't explain how the words give up came to mean surrender. Jul 22, 2023 at 12:20

The phrase arose in a transitive sense in Middle English. The Middle English Dictionary traces give up (in the entry for the verb yeven) meaning several things related to surrender:

[give] up, relinquish (an office), give up (sth., a battle, project, an endeavor, etc.), abandon (a belief), renounce (an allegiance, matters of war, etc.); surrender (a castle, a town); also fig.; also, relinquish professional interest in (a horse), give up on [quot. 1409].

Early quoted uses always take an object. One is always yielding something, either physical or abstract:

?a1160 Peterb.Chron.(LdMisc 636)an.1137 : King Stephne…dide ælle in prisun til hi iafen up here castles.

c1225(?c1200) St.Kath.(1) (Bod 34)94/660 : Twa hundret cnihtes…ȝeuen anan up hare ȝeomere bileaue. [their wretched faith]

The intransitive sense (think, "She gave up") emerges by the early 17th century, as the Oxford English Dictionary shows ("give, v.," phrasal verb 1, "to give up," meaning 3):

  1. intransitive. To leave off; to cease from effort, leave off trying; to stop. Also, to succumb. ~1616a

a1616 She hath bin reading late, The Tale of Tereus, heere the leaffe's turn'd downe Where Philomele gaue vp.

W. Shakespeare, Cymbeline (1623) ii. ii. 46

So by the time Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline, give up without an object could mean that the subject of the verb quit or surrendered.

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