By Dr Oliver Tearle
The expression to give up has two complementary but distinct meanings. Indeed, in one sense, the two meanings stand in opposition to each other: one might give up oneself to a vice or weakness (by surrendering to one’s desire for a drink or a bar of chocolate), or one might give up the vice itself (by stopping eating chocolate or drinking one’s tipple of choice). However, some of the synonyms for give up overlap and can be used for both senses of the phrase – as we’ll make clear in the post that follows.
Below, we explore some of the commonest synonyms for these two distinct senses of give up, before providing some suggestions for antonyms.
‘Give up’ synonyms
Let’s begin with the first meaning of give up: to surrender oneself to something, to GIVE IN to it.
If you give up control or power to somebody else, you SURRENDER it. If you stop trying, or give up in a particular aim or objective, you surrender to it, throwing your hands up in the air; you ADMIT DEFEAT. Since surrender is from the French (itself ultimately from Latin words) sur-, meaning ‘over’ or ‘on’, and render means essentially ‘give’, to surrender is etymologically not so much to give up as to give over, though with a similar meaning, of course.
Originally, surrendering was used not in a military but a legal sense: it meant to give up one’s estate. However, within fifty years of the word’s first appearance in English (in the fifteenth century), it had come to mean ‘to give up a possession to an enemy or assailant’.
YIELD carries much the same meaning, and is common from the fields of combat: you yield to your enemy, and give up the fight. This word is related to the Germanic gild, meaning ‘money’, because a yield was originally a sum of money paid to somebody, like a tax. So, one gave up one’s money to the person demanding it, just as fields gave up their crops to the farmer, and thus the crops became known as the ‘yield’.
Similarly, the verb to yield initially meant to pay money to somebody, but this sense of giving money soon gave way (as it were) to other kinds of giving, including the relinquishing of power to an enemy. The same goes for the verb SUBMIT, as in submitting to an enemy.
Another way of conveying this idea of giving up is to talk of how a person might CONCEDE or CAPITULATE. This latter verb is related to chapter (both of them ultimately from the Latin capita, meaning ‘head’), because when terms of surrender were drawn up, they were often listed as chapters or headings in a document.
RELINQUISH is of similar meaning, conveying the idea of giving up power or valued possessions to someone else.
If you give up a post, job, or role, you can be said to RESIGN from it, or simply to resign. In a more general sense, people talk of being resigned to a particular course of action or chain of events. In both senses, the meaning is the same: they have given up control over them.
To HAND OVER doesn’t necessarily mean to give up something because one has surrendered control of it: for instance, when an official comes to the end of their agreed term of office, they might give up their duties and hand over the chain of office to their successor.
A more colloquial expression that can serve as a synonym for give up is THROW IN THE TOWEL, which means to ADMIT DEFEAT. This phrase, first recorded in 1915, originated in the sport of boxing, where a player would literally throw or toss their towel into the ring (or their manager might chuck it in) to signal that they yielded the fight to their opponent.
However, over fifty years before the phrase to throw in the towel was first recorded, there was a similar expression which is now far less widely used: to THROW UP THE SPONGE, which is also from the world of prize fighting, and similarly signalled that the fighter wished to give up the struggle. In a 1921 article for the Times Literary Supplement, the novelist Virginia Woolf used the phrase when discussing ghost stories, showing that the expression had become more widely used:
To admit that the supernatural was used for the last time by Mrs. Radcliffe and that modern nerves are immune from the wonder and terror which ghosts have always inspired would be to throw up the sponge too easily. If the old methods are obsolete, it is the business of a writer to discover new ones.
Perhaps it’s time to resurrect this particular idiom, as a less overused synonymous alternative to throw in the towel?
Alternatively, rather than talking of giving up something to someone else, you might talk about giving up a habit. So you can talk of how to RENOUNCE, FORGO, or FORSWEAR something. These verbs can be used about giving up a role or job too, but are perhaps more common in the context of giving up a bad habit, such as forswearing gambling, for instance.
To DESIST, QUIT, ABANDON, and DISCONTINUE all put across the same idea. For instance, people often talk about quitting the habit.
If you give up your rights over, or claim to, something, then you can be said to WAIVE those rights. So this is a slightly different synonym from the others listed here, since it means giving up a claim to somebody else’s property rather than giving up your own property to somebody else.
‘Give up’ antonyms
Because give up carries several different meanings, it’s important to distinguish between these when considering useful antonyms.
For instance, antonyms for give up in the sense of ‘surrender’ or ‘yield’ might including STAND ONE’S GROUND, HOLD FAST, and HOLD FIRM (e.g., against an enemy attack). Meanwhile, if you’re the one who is trying to LAY CLAIM to something, and trying to get somebody else to give up their property, then lay claim can be described as an antonym for give up.