Close, But No Cigar
The phrase close, but no cigar is traditionally uttered when someone falls just short of achieving a goal. The phrase comes to us from the early twentieth-century practice of giving out cigars as prizes for winning games of chance or skill at carnivals, fairs, and other attractions. As I am writing this, the earliest known use of the phrase is from 1929, although the phrase is almost certainly older, and antedatings may yet be found.
The earliest known appearance of close, but no cigar is in the Long Island Daily Press of 18 May 1929, when it appears as a paragraph heading in the “Civic Gossip” column describing a man’s loss of the election to the presidency of a community association. The fact that the phrase appears without explanation in a context that has nothing to do with cigars or carnivals indicates that the editors of the paper thought the idea of cigars-as-prizes was well known to their readers, and the fact that there is a cluster of appearances of the phrase in 1929 and 1930 indicates that the phrase must have been in wider circulation—it’s unlikely that a single use in a gossip column of a Long Island newspaper would inspire similar uses across the Northeast United States in the span of only a few weeks.
A couple of weeks later, the Princeton Alumni Weekly of 2 July 1929 ran this about a reunion:
The long distance trophy, an appropriately inscribed silver cigarette case, was awarded to Em Gooch, who had made the trip from Lincoln, Neb. for the occasion. Several other members came close, but no cigar, and we trust that all those in New York, and Philadelphia who failed to show up, without reason, will read these lines with a quiver.
Again, the writer is assuming familiarity with the phrase, and although the silver cigarette case is close, there is no actual cigar.
The practice of handing out cigars as prizes is well documented. Here’s an example from Robert Machray’s 1902 book, The Night Side of London, page 103, that describes the practice but doesn’t use the actual phrase:
Should you score twenty you will win a cigar. But you do no more than score nine. Undiscouraged, or perhaps encouraged by this fact, you spend another penny, and another, and another—but you don’t get the cigar, and it is well for you that you don’t! For there are cigars and cigars. On you go, and next you try your hand at the cocoa-nuts, or the skittles, or the clay-pipes, or in the shooting-alleys. And so on and on—until your stock of pennies and patience is exhausted.
Goranson, Stephen, “‘close but no cigar’ antedated (1929)’,” ADS-L, 18 January 2013.
O’Toole, Garson, “Re: ‘close but no cigar’ antedated (1929)’,” ADS-L, 18 January 2013.
Mullins, Bill, “Re: ‘close but no cigar’ antedated (1929)’,” ADS-L, 18 January 2013.
Popik, Barry, “Close, but no cigar,” The Big Apple blog, 18 January 2009.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton