Q: Every time I hear someone say “I threw up my hands in exasperation,” I picture him vomiting up his own limbs! This expression makes me throw up. Is there any justification for using it?
A: People have been throwing up a lot of things over the years, including their noses, their eyes, their hands, and of course their stomach contents.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the expression used in the sense of vomiting is from a 1732 book about dieting: “It is easy to judge of the Cause by the Substances which the Patient throws up.”
But pretty soon people were throwing up their noses to a savory aroma (1746), their eyes to heaven (1880), and their hands to surrender (1887).
The first published reference in the OED to hand-throwing is from A Lady’s Ranche Life in Montana, a collection of letters by Isabel F. Randall, an Englishwoman who lived in the American West during the 1880s:
“He was suddenly aware of a horse galloping rapidly up behind him, and heard a shout: ‘Throw up your hands!’ ”
It’s understandable that an expression for surrendering to a posse would evolve into the one you’ve asked about: an expression of exasperation or hopelessness, as in “He threw up his hands and dropped the argument.”
In fact, the verbal phrase “throw up” has meant to abandon, quit, or give up since the 17th century, well before it had anything to do with stomach-turning incidents, according to OED citations.
It’s been used in the sense of quitting, for example, in such expressions as “throw up one’s game” or “throw up one’s cards” or “throw up the sponge.”
Why a sponge? The OED says the usage comes from the practice of throwing up the sponge used to clean a boxer’s face as a signal that a prize fight is over.
But back to your question. We see nothing wrong with the expression. Sorry to disappoint you – just throw up your hands in exasperation!
Check out our books about the English language