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.
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!