Why Do We Say, 'Close, But No Cigar'?

illustration of carnival barkers
The phrase comes from the world of carnival barkers. HowStuffWorks

Cigars don't just emit acrid smoke that seem to latch onto your clothes — they've also spawned some similarly sticky idioms in the English language. For example, there's, "What we need is a good five-cent cigar," as in a reference to a sensibly affordable item, as opposed to something overpriced.

But cigar sayings can be much weirder. For example, "Close, but no cigar."


You didn't ask for a cigar. Maybe you don't even like them. So why is someone abruptly denying you one?

This phrase is most often used when someone is nearly — but not quite — successful at something. A football player drops an easy catch. A desperate commuter runs but misses her bus pulling away from the bus stop. A math student doesn't catch a critical detail and screws up his whole equation.

They're all situations worthy of "close, but no cigar."

The gist is obvious to anyone who grew up hearing it spoken among their friends and family. Yet even if you understand what "close, but no cigar" means, you might wonder exactly where this idiom originated.

After all, what do cigars have to do with success?

Turns out, cigars were once used as prizes for carnival games in the United States in the early 20th century. These games of skill or chance were often exasperatingly difficult, and most people failed to win a prize — as an example, think of the smaller-than-regulation basketball hoops at many county fairs that seem to spit out every ball thrown their way.

After each participant failed, the carnival barker would shout, "Close, but no cigar!"

(Cigar Aficionado goes as far as to say the carnival game was "Highball" or "Hi-Striker," one of those games where the player has to try and make a bell ring by hitting a weight hard enough to drive it up a column to the bell.)

carnival game of strength
This is the kind of game that might have won you a cigar in the 1920s.
Bettman/Getty Images

There are references to this phenomenon as early as 1902, in Robert Machray's book titled, "The Night Side of London," in which the following passage appears:

"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."

Cigars are no longer offered as prizes to carnival goers around the country. Instead, you'll have to settle for a giant stuffed bear.