Have you ever given something your best effort only to hear someone tell you, “Close but no cigar?” It means that you came close to succeeding but in the end, you failed.
In 2010, the sports media appeared to be in love with the expression “close but no cigar.” Whether it was the Toronto Sun newspaper reporting on the Blue Jays (May 10, 2011 Headline: Jays Close, But No Cigar) or the NHL website reporting on the San Jose Sharks (May 23, 2010 Headline: For Sharks, It’s Close, But No Cigar Again) or the Boston.com website reporting on the Red Sox (June 4, 2010 Headline: Allenson Close, But No Cigar), the expression found itself enjoying a renewed popularity with readers and writers alike.
Some sources claim that the first recorded published version of the expression is found in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley:
Close, Colonel, but no cigar!
That is inaccurate. On September 5, 1935 — the Annie Oakley movie was released in theatres across the U.S. on November 15, 1935 — the Reading Eagle newspaper a news article entitled, “Promenading In Pennsylvania Sports” reported the following:
A schedule of 14 P.I.A.A. games has just been released. It was a “close, but no cigar” that deal by which Pretzels Pezzullo, Phillies’ left-hander, was to go to the Hazelton New York-Penn League Mountaineers. Pretzels reached Hazelton, but had barely said, “howdy” before the Phils ordered him back to bolster their shaky pitching staff.
And the National Geographic published a story in their magazine in Volume 57 published in 1930 that included this passage:
They replied, making smoke at the same time and, as at Empress Augusta Bay, their salvos fell in patterns so tight they could be covered with a blanket, always close but no cigar, though on Claxton’s bridge, though on Craxton’s bridge the officers sloshed around in water two feet deep from the splashes of shells that dropped right alongside.
Cigars were popular carnival prizes for all sorts of games at the fair back in the 1900s. Remember that smoking cigars was quite acceptable back in the day, when so many homes had smoking parlours and men wore smoking jackets. Getting back to the carnivals, game barkers would shout out, “close, but no cigar” whenever a game was lost as a way of goading men into displaying their remarkable manly abilities when it came to tossing rings or ringing the bell with a good slam of the sledgehammer and more.
Men would line up to prove that they had what it took to win the cigar that the previous good man had lost out on. And the man who had lost would try again, in the hopes that the young lady accompanying him would forget his initial mishap and be impressed by his subsequent success.
There are stories that Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924), President of the United States from 1913 to 1921 often used the phrase, and the phrase can be found in any number of penny novel journals of the era. Although Idiomation was unable to find any penny novel journals online from which to quote, that the expression was used by game barkers in the 1900s is evidence enough that the expression “close but no cigar” was an established phrase in the 1910s.