How many times have you used that phrase “Close but no cigar”? It’s not heard quite as often as it was in your granddad’s day, but everyone still knows what it means…You were close, but you don’t win the prize. Close failure.
Today, you might hear it after a missed field goal that sailed wide by a few feet or an answer to a question that was nearly correct but still wrong.
Where did the term originate? That’s what we want to know.
Well, while the term is often used as a figure of speech today – the kicker won’t really get a cigar for making the field goal – the origin is, as you might expect, quite literal.
Just as they are today, carnival games requiring excellent aim were immensely popular in the late 1800s and into the 20th century. Common games featured the chance to win cigars if the contestant could throw balls through a hole or use them to hit targets, toss rings over bottles or pitch bean bags through slots.
For a nickel or dime, the contestant was given three balls, rings or bags. Typically, a cigar was the prize for each successful throw, and a bonus was often given for making all three of the attempts.
Each miss was greeted by the carnival barker with a shout of, say it together now, “Close, but NO CIGAR!”
Cigars were hot commodities in those days. A cigar boom erupted during the Civil War. U.S. Grant was sent 10,000 boxes of cigars after the Union Army’s victory at the Battle of Shiloh. In the first quarter of the 20th century, more than 75 percent of men were cigar smokers.
The entry fee to the carnival games about what you’d expect. Five cents in 1880 equates to about $1.20 today. The same nickel game would cost $1.35 today.
However, the stogies were likely pretty cheap! We’re guessing they weren’t handing out the first precursor to the Davidoff Millennium cigars a millennium ago!