What is the Origin of “Close, But No Cigar”?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesMost people have heard the idiom, “close, but no cigar” or its variant “nice try, but no cigar” and instantly understood its meaning: to fall just short of accomplishing a goal or getting something nearly, but not completely, correct. The idiom is a contraction of “close, but you do not win a cigar.” So when you stop to think about it — while smoking a cigar is largely frowned upon for health and social reasons, why would someone want to win a cigar? That is a very good question, indeed. Let’s take a brief journey through history to learn how this idiom came about.

When we step into the time machine, let’s set the destination to the late 1700s to arrive in London, England where we will first meet the two men who share the title “father of the modern circus”: Philip Astley (1742-1814) and Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). In fact, Dibdin coined the word “circus,” derived from the Latin word circus, derived from the Greek kirkos, meaning “a circle, a ring.” The Romans used the term to refer to enclosures  without roofs that were used for races and performances. Both Astley and Dibdin built very popular shows around elaborate equestrian demonstrations and performances, eventually adding other forms of entertainment. Astley, for example, was inspired by the acts that appeared at fairs and pleasure gardens of London and Paris; so he added clowns, jugglers, rope dancers, and acrobats to his shows in the late 1700s. Because these shows were inexpensive, they drew huge crowds which was great for business. By the mid 1800s, there were hundreds of circuses in England. The traveling circus (or the “tenting circus”) was introduced in the late 1830s. The development of the railroad allowed large circuses to travel further and reach the remotest towns. By the end of the century, British and American circuses were touring across Europe and the United States. By the late 1800s, circus owners began expanding their entertainment and added games of skill and chance that were held in side stalls. These included games like ring toss, tossing games, target-related games (dart games, shooting galleries), etc. that looked easy to win but were actually very difficult. The next person we will meet will shed some light on the type of prizes that participants won.

Robert Machray wrote about life in London at the turn of the century. In his book, The Night Side of London, published in 1902, Machray describes the side stalls games located in London’s East End. In a chapter titled “Not In Society,” Machray writes: “All around the capacious yard, except on the side where stands the menagerie, and the other side which drives the hobby-horse arrangement, are ranged various devices for extracting pennies from your pockets. They are mostly of the three-shies-a-penny variety, and a spice of skill (or would you call it luck?) enters into them all. If you are successful, a prize rewards you. You are anxious to enter the spirit of the thing, and you begin by investing a penny in three rings, which you endeavor to throw in such a way to land them round the handle of a knife stuck in a wall. It looks easy, and you go into the business with a light heart. But — you don’t succeed. Another penny — you try again, and again you are defeated. What O! Another penny — and this time you accept defeat, and move on to the next stall, where another penny gives you the privilege of trying to roll three balls into certain holes with numbers attached thereunto. Should you score twenty you will win a cigar. But you do no more than score nine. Undiscouraged, or perhaps encouraged by this fact, you spend another penny, and another, and another — but you don’t get the cigar, and it is well for you that you don’t! For there are cigars and cigars. On you go, and next you try your hand at the cocoa-nuts, or the skittles, or the clay-pipes, or in the shooting-alleys. And so on and on—until your stock of pennies and patience is exhausted.” What Machray is alluding to here is that circus owners knew that the most lucrative circus games were the ones where players overestimated their chances of winning. Those who experience a near miss (or almost win) will continue to play believing that a win is inevitable, which is completely irrational in a game of chance. In modern psychology this is known as the “near miss effect.” Several studies have indicated that gamblers who experience a near miss in a game interpret that as a sign that they should keep on playing because a win is “just around the corner.” Brain scans (PET and MRI) of gamblers show that a near miss activates the same reward systems in the brain as an actual win. Moreover, studies show that even though gamblers perceive near misses as more aversive that traditional losses, the near misses are more encouraging for continued and prolonged play. The near miss effect can be increased when the time to placing a bet and starting a new game is decreased. In short, the more you lose, the more you believe you will win soon. The near miss effect is not only employed in games of chance at gambling casinos, circuses, and carnivals — it is a key ingredient in video games. But we digress…

Let’s return to Machray’s description of the circus games in London’s East End, specifically his description of the game prize: “If you are successful, a prize rewards you… Should you score… you will win a cigar.” Naturally, the followup question to this is:  why a cigar? Let’s hop back across the band and visit young America. The practice of marking important occasions with unique gifts was adopted by early American settlers in the early 17th century. This practice, known as potlatch, was borrowed from the indigenous people of North America who bestowed gifts to one another on special occasions. One such gift was the primitive version of the cigar. Over time, this tradition become widely accepted both in American and Europe. During the Victorian era, smoking a cigar was a way of celebrating not only a birth but any achievement, like winning a tournament, or celebrating an important personal or business milestone. And compared to the cost of other circus prizes like liquor, hats, or chalkware (porcelain dolls), cigars were relatively inexpensive (a few cents) and easy to store (cigars could be packed in boxes of 200).

It is very likely that about this time, circus workers would use the phrase “close, but no cigar” when a contestant came close, but failed to win the cigar as a prize; however, there is no written documentation about when the phrase first began being used. On the other hand, because the actual idiom does not appear in print in the U.S. until the early 1920s, many sources on the web mistakenly assume that this idiom originated in America and there are conflicting origin stories. For example, there is this entry from Wiktionary: “Apparently from the practice of giving cigars as prizes at carnivals in the United States in the 20th century; those who did not win would fail to receive a cigar, even if they came close.” In 2009, idiom and quotation detective, Barry Popik, wrote: “A cigar was traditionally one of the rewards at carnivals for winning at games of skill or chance. Coney Island offered many such games in the early 1900s. Most people did not win a prize; for them, the carnival barker would declare: ‘Close, but no cigar!’” An article on the website Today I Found Out (September 2013) states the following: “This popular idiom, which means ‘to fall short of a successful outcome’ or ‘close call,’ was first coined in the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century. While it can’t be proven definitively, it’s likely that the phrase originated at fairgrounds around this time.”

Conflicting origin stories also exist printed idiom reference works. Take a look at this entry from Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable (2nd Edition) by John Alto & Ian Crofton: “The allusion is to the Highball, a fairground “try-your-strength” machine with a pivot that the contestant hits with a hammer in the hope of sending a projectile up high enough to hit a bell. Those who succeed are awarded a cigar by the proprietor. The expression, like the machine itself, derives from US carnivals.” Turning to the authoritative Facts on File Encyclopedia Word and Phrase Origins (Fourth Edition) by Robert Hendrickson provides this entry: “Not quite correct. This appears to be an American phrase from the late 19th century, possibly of carnival origin, where the mike man running a game of chance advises that a player has not won the cigar prize.” The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (Second Edition) by William and Mary Morris states “[The idiom] originated at traveling carnivals and sideshows. When the barker spun the wheel of fortune, the winner was customarily rewarded with the gift of a cigar. When he wheel stopped just short of the player’s number the carney barker would offer as consolation: ‘Sorry. Close — but no cigar.'” Allen’s English Phrases by Robert Allen writes: “a good but unsuccessful try; a near miss; a metaphor from US fairground games in which the prize was a cigar. Late 20th cent.” And finally, The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Elizabeth Knowles simply defines the term but offers no origin story.

So we see that there is little consensus around the origin story and certainly no definitive evidence about its origin — either in the UK or in the US. Since Machray’s book is the first to discuss the stall games and the prizes, it is more likely that this idiom originated in England and traveled across the pond, since many British circuses traveled throughout America (and vice-versa). Nevertheless, the first time the idiom appears in print is in the headline of an article in the Long Island Daily Press (Jamaica, NY), dated May 18, 1929: “Close, But No Cigar” about an individual who lost a two consecutive presidential races. The next printed reference is from The Princeton Alumni Weekly (July 2, 1929): “The long distance trophy, an appropriately inscribed silver cigarette case, was awarded to Em Gooch who had made the trip from Lincoln, Neb. for the occasion. Several other members came close, but no cigar, and we trust that all those in New York and Philadelphia who failed to show up, without reason, will read these lines with a quiver.” Interestingly, using Google’s Ngram Viewer, we see that the use of the word “cigar” steadily rose from 1820, peaked in 1908, and started a sharp downward trend that lasted until 1979.

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the phrase probably originated in England in the late 1800s, was used by barkers at traveling circuses in Europe, and through cross-pollination, made its way to America, but was not popularized, for whatever reason, until the early 1920s. Since cigars are no longer popular, perhaps the phrase should be updated to replace “cigar” with a more generic term, for example: “close, but no prize”; or “close, but no reward”; or “close, but no jackpot.” What would you suggest?

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For further reading:
The Night Side of London by Robert Machray

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