Close But No Cigar Origin

Close But No Cigar Origin

In the vast landscape of idiomatic expressions, “Close, but no cigar” stands out as a quirky and memorable phrase. Its usage spans generations and cultures, but where did it originate? What’s the story behind this peculiar saying?

The phrase “Close, but no cigar” is often used to convey a sense of near success without achieving the desired outcome. Picture a carnival game where a player narrowly misses hitting the target to win a prize. The phrase is often employed in such scenarios to acknowledge the effort while acknowledging the lack of success.

One popular theory suggests that the phrase originated in the United States during the late 19th or early 20th century, a time when carnivals and fairs were prominent sources of entertainment. At these events, one could find numerous games of skill and chance, including the classic ring toss or shooting galleries. Participants would often compete for prizes, which sometimes included cigars among other trinkets.

Legend has it that carnival barkers would use the phrase “Close, but no cigar” when a player came close to winning but fell short of the target. The expression, with its catchy rhythm and imagery, quickly caught on and became a staple of American vernacular.

Another theory suggests a more literal origin. Cigars were once commonly awarded as prizes at fairs and carnivals, particularly in the United States. Winning a cigar symbolized success and accomplishment, making it a desirable reward. When a participant failed to secure a victory, they would hear the disappointing phrase “Close, but no cigar.”

The phrase’s popularity transcended its carnival origins and found its way into various aspects of everyday life. Over time, it evolved beyond its original context and became a versatile expression used to denote near misses in any situation.


Interestingly, variations of the phrase exist in other languages and cultures, each with its own unique twist. In Spanish, for example, one might say “Casi, pero no cigarro,” maintaining the essence of the original expression while adapting it to the language. Similar variations can be found in languages across the globe, demonstrating the universality of the concept of near success.


Despite its enduring popularity, the phrase “Close, but no cigar” has faced some criticism in recent years. Some argue that its origins in carnival culture may trivialize the struggles and efforts of individuals who fall short of their goals. However, others maintain that it serves as a lighthearted reminder that success often requires perseverance and resilience in the face of setbacks.


Regardless of its critics, “Close, but no cigar” remains firmly entrenched in the lexicon of idiomatic expressions, serving as a colorful reminder of the quirks and nuances of language. So the next time you find yourself just shy of achieving your goal, remember the origins of this peculiar phrase and take solace in the fact that sometimes, coming close is an achievement in itself.


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