To almost do something successfully, but not quite; nearing a success only to fall short at the end.
Example: Clark has been working out and he wanted to see if he was capable of doing 50 push-ups in a row. After giving it a shot, he realized he could only get to 45. Thus, someone might say to Clark, “close, but no cigar.” In other words, he almost had it.
The Origin of ‘Close But No Cigar’
This phrase is believed to come from carnivals, or fairs. Here’s why: Carnivals have many different games that can be played. Some of these games are based around players needing to be accurate if they want to win, while others lean more towards strength.
For example, there’s a game known as “high striker” where the player takes a mallet and swings it as hard as they can at a target on the ground. If the target is hit hard enough, a metallic object rises up and rings a bell, meaning the player has won. Fair games usually have prizes that are handed out to the winners. These prizes might include things such as large stuffed animals or other kinds of toys.
Now, listen to this: There apparently was a time in the 20th century where cigars were among the prizes that could be won. If this is true, I could indeed picture the person in charge of a game at the fair shouting “you were close, but no cigar” to players who were just shy of winning the prize. And then later, it would become the idiom that’s used today.
Anyways, this phrase looks to go back to at least 1934. It appears in writing during that year in a Pennsylvania newspaper called the Chester Times:
“An unseen pedestrian loomed before their headlights, narrowly dodged the sliding wheels. ‘Close, but no cigar,’ the lieutenant shouted.”
- I almost broke my record on the 100-yard dash, so my coach told me “close, Mike, but no cigar.“
- My goal was to lose 10 lbs by the end of the month. As of right now I’m almost there. I’m close, but no cigar just yet.
Tip: If you want to find more common phrases and sayings, use the menu up top.