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 learn more towards strength. For example, you might be familiar with a game known as “high striker.” It’s a game where the player takes a mallet and swings it hard 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 will have prizes that are handed out to the winners. These prizes include things such as large stuffed animals or other kinds of toys. Now, listen to this:
Apparently, there was a time in the 20th century where cigars were among the prizes that could be won. If this is the case, then it is easy to picture the person in charge of a carnival game shouting “you were close, but no cigar” to the players who were just shy of winning the prize. Then later, it would become the expression that it is 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.”
- My brother wanted to lose 10 lbs by the end of the month, that was his goal. Well, we’re there now and he was close, but no cigar.
- My coach told me “close, Mike, but no cigar,” after I nearly broke my record at the 100-yard dash.
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