To almost do something successfully, but not quite; nearing a success only to fall short at the end.
Example: Clark was out of shape; he couldn’t even do 10 push-ups! However, he’s been working out at the gym recently, so now he wants to see if he can manage to do 50 push-ups in one go. After giving it his best shot, he could only get up to 45.
Thus, someone might tell Clark that he was “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 require the player to be accurate, while others lean more towards strength. For example, you might be familiar with a classic game known as “high striker.” It’s a game where the player takes a mallet and swings it at a target on the ground. If the target is hit hard enough, a metallic object rises up and rings a bell at the top, meaning the player has won.
Usually, fair games have prizes that are handed out to the winners. The most common prizes include things such as large stuffed animals or other kinds of toys. Now, here’s the point:
Apparently, there was a time during the 20th century where cigars were among the prizes that could be won. If this is true, then you can picture the person in charge of a carnival game shouting “close, but no cigar” to the players who were just shy of winning the prize. Then later, this carnival phrase went on to become the expression it is today.
Anyways, this phrase goes 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.”
- My brother’s goal was to lose 10 lbs by the end of the month. Well, the month just ended and he was close, but no cigar.
- After I nearly broke my 100-yard dash record, my coach told me “close, Mike, but no cigar.”
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