Why Do We Say, ‘Close, But No Cigar’?

Why Do We Say, ‘Close, But No Cigar’?

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Cigars don’t just emit acrid smoke that seem to latch onto your clothes — they’ve also spawned some similarly sticky idioms in the English language. For example, there’s, “What we need is a good five-cent cigar,” as in a reference to a sensibly affordable item, as opposed to something overpriced.

But cigar sayings can be much weirder. For example, “Close, but no cigar.”

You didn’t ask for a cigar. Maybe you don’t even like them. So why is someone abruptly denying you one?

This phrase is most often used when someone is nearly — but not quite — successful at something. A football player drops an easy catch. A desperate commuter runs but misses her bus pulling away from the bus stop. A math student doesn’t catch a critical detail and screws up his whole equation.

They’re all situations worthy of “close, but no cigar.”

The gist is obvious to anyone who grew up hearing it spoken among their friends and family. Yet even if you understand what “close, but no cigar” means, you might wonder exactly where this idiom originated.

After all, what do cigars have to do with success?

Turns out, cigars were once used as prizes for carnival games in the United States in the early 20th century. These games of skill or chance were often exasperatingly difficult, and most people failed to win a prize — as an example, think of the smaller-than-regulation basketball hoops at many county fairs that seem to spit out every ball thrown their way.

After each participant failed, the carnival barker would shout, “Close, but no cigar!”

(Cigar Aficionado goes as far as to say the carnival game was “Highball” or “Hi-Striker,” one of those games where the player has to try and make a bell ring by hitting a weight hard enough to drive it up a column to the bell.)

There are references to this phenomenon as early as 1902, in Robert Machray’s book titled, “The Night Side of London,” in which the following passage appears:

Cigars are no longer offered as prizes to carnival goers around the country. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a giant stuffed bear.

The phrase “close, but no cigar” appeared in script for the 1935 film “Annie Oakley.” But there were other earlier recorded uses, in both sports reporting and in National Geographic magazine. No matter who printed it first, it seems certain the phrase traveled quickly through the American vernacular because of the way carnivals moved from place to place.

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Why Do We Say, ‘Close, But No Cigar’?

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