Close, But No Cigar

This saying came to my attention from one of my readers. I had actually never heard of this saying, so I was anxious to find out where it came from and what it really meant.

stock-graphics-vintage-the-circus-procession-viintage-0001vNineteenth Century Circuses were quite the affair to enter a town. People lined the streets, businesses closed and children did not go to school that day. Everyone went to the circus. (I found this information from my research on circuses for one of my short stories, although my story was not set in the 1800s.) Still, in those days there were the callers to entice people to play games. They would yell out, “Close, but no cigar” as people lost the prize, a cigar.

We may have come a long way today to not give away tobacco as a prize, but then, it was the thing to do.

clowns-71271_1280I do not think the games were this easy. And I have never really seen any carnival game as easy as this one pictured. Instead of yelling, “Close, but no cigar” they would have been giving away the tobacco right and left as people stood in line to play the game and receive the prize.

So, all in all, “Close, but no cigar” means you came close to the prize, but you did not succeed.

It’s different from “close call” because that phrase has a danger zone attached. When we say something was a close call, it means someone barely escaped from danger or disaster. We could say that when we narrowly miss being in a car accident or slipping on ice in the driveway. It has nothing to do with a prize, where we can use, “close, but no cigar” when a success as a prize has eluded us.

Then, there is “almost doesn’t count” which makes no sense to me. This is an idiom meaning nearly doing something is not the same as actually doing it. Where in the world does the meaning come from and what are we really saying? I am going to have to investigate this one further. But, this idiom is in the same category as “close call” (I don’t see it) which is in the same category as “Close, but no cigar” where all three have different meanings altogether. No wonder English is so hard to learn!

2e_3268_0_annieoakleyBack to the circuses. The phrase caught on outside of the grandstands, and people started using it in newspapers and movies. In the 1935 movie of Annie Oakley , one of Barbara Stanwyck’s lines was “Close, Colonel, but no cigar.”

It would be fun to watch that edition of Annie Oakley and see if we could identify the line and how it was used in the movie.

So, there we are folks, from giving away cigars at circuses to frowning on the tobacco industry and seeing the demise of one of the largest circuses in the world, our world has changed. But our words live on.


I’ll be back Friday….until then…have a great day!

On another note. The publishing of the book is coming along. I basically have the e-book edition completed and will begin the paperback edition tomorrow. My goal of having everything completed by the end of this month is still in sight. My artist comes Thursday for the book cover. I am excited.




Filed under phrases

2 responses to “Close, But No Cigar


    I will get a copy of your book

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