Q&A: Close but no cigar

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we learn the idiom to almost succeed in something, but not quite get there.

Q: Hi AWC, I’d love to know how we got the idiom “close, but no cigar” – it seems like a strange thing to be so close to getting. Thoughts?

A: The saying means to almost succeed in something, but not quite get there.

Q: Yes, but where did it originate?

A: Jamaica, which on a map is very close to Cuba – a major cigar producer.

Q: Really?

A: No, we made that up. It actually comes from hospital waiting areas, where expectant fathers would enquire about news of the labour. The nurse – instead of saying “she’s 7cm dilated and calling you a bunch of expletives” – would simply say “close, but no cigar”. The cigar of course being what was smoked once the baby arrived.

Q: Wow, really?

A: Actually no, we made that one up too.

Q: Arrrgh. Why are you doing this?

A: Because it’s fun coming up with alternative origin stories.

Q: The real one please.

A: Okay. Surprisingly, it originated in the 1990s with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsk—

Q: Okay, that’s enough. If you’re not going to take this seriously, I shall take my questions elsewhere.

A: Alright fine, let’s get to the REAL origin of “close but no cigar”, shall we?

Q: Yes please.

A: It dates from the early 20th century US fairgrounds, where you would go to play the near impossible-to-win games in those sideshow alleys.

Q: Oh, those ones where you can win a giant cuddly gorilla?

A: Yes, although back then there were significantly less cuddly cigars on offer.

Q: Wait, what? I know that children went up and down chimneys back then, but I’m fairly sure they didn’t also smoke like chimneys. Why would they want to win cigars?

A: Remember, this was a hundred years ago, when children were still being seen and not heard. It was actually the adults that had the fun at the fair and got the prizes – in this case, cigars being one such prize on offer.

Q: Wow, a fairground with no kids. That’s like an organic locally-sourced juice bar with no apron-wearing hipsters.

A: Quite. So anyway, if you didn’t end up winning (which, let’s face it, was almost always), then the carny (can also be spelt “carnie”) would yell “close, but no cigar!”

Q: And this story is true?

A: Yes. Through the late 1920s and 1930s, it began to appear in print and on film – with the context already beyond the fairground. Headlines of close election losses or sporting defeats would commonly use “Close – but no cigar!”. Since the 1950s, it has been well entrenched and today you might also see “Nice try, but no cigar” – which of course means the same thing.

Q: Okay, that seems like a fair answer.

A: Oh very good, because of the fairground?

Q: No. Because it was average.

A: Right, we’re done here. This cigar chat has officially run out of puff.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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