What Does the Saying “Close, but No Cigar” Really Mean?

I didn't ask for a cigar, so why are you telling me I don't get one?

If you’ve ever come close to achieving something but didn’t quite get to the goal, you’ve probably heard the saying, “Close, but no cigar.” You probably just accept defeat and move on. But have you ever stopped to think about this commonly used phrase? Why a cigar? Who even asked for a cigar?

The expression, “Close, but no cigar” means that a person fell slightly short of a successful outcome and therefore gets no reward. But the number of people in today’s society that see a cigar as a reward is probably pretty low, so why do we still say it? Here are the origins of some other commonly used idioms.

The phrase most likely originated in the 1920s when fairs, or carnivals, would hand out cigars as prizes. At that time, the games were targeted towards adults, not kids. Yes, even in the ’20s most carnival games were impossible to win which often lead the owner of the game to say, “Close, but no cigar” when the player failed to get enough rings around bottles or was just shy of hitting the target. As fairs started to travel around the United States, the saying spread and became well-known.

There’s also evidence of people handing out cigars as prizes in Robert Machray’s 1902 book, The Night Side of LondonIt reads, “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.” For more word facts, here’s where your favorite slang words came from.

The first known appearance of the phrase in print—not connected to a fair in any way—was in 1929 when it appeared in the Long Island Daily Press as a paragraph heading that went on to describe a man failing to win the presidency of a community association. Throughout the 30s the phrase became more popular and was commonly used in print and even movies. You might remember the famous line from the film Annie Oakley, “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!”

Even though cigars aren’t as popular in today’s culture—and certainly aren’t handed out as prizes at carnivals—it wouldn’t feel right to change the saying to something like, “Close, but no giant stuffed animals.” If you think that sounds funny, check out these international idioms that sound hilarious in English.

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Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Assistant Digital Managing Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When she’s not writing for rd.com or keeping the 650+ pieces of content our team produces every month organized, she likes watching HGTV, going on Target runs, and searching through Instagram to find new corgi accounts to follow.