Idiom: Close, but no cigarOED definition: almost but not quite successfulExample: They didn’t catch him in the car—close but no cigar
Blog in English Method To My Madness
This popular expression originates from the USA in the late 19th or early 20th century. It is believed that the phrase was coined at travelling fairgrounds at the time. In a manner not dissimilar to today’s fairgrounds, booths would be set up which offered extremely difficult, virtually impossible-to-win games. These were often games of skill, strength and accuracy that both men and women would take delight in attempting. Although may of these games were fixed (organised so that they were impossible to win), occasionally people were successful (generally just often enough to encourage people to keep playing and to attract others to the stall). Cigars were frequently given out as prizes to lucky individuals who were able to beat the game.
Therefore, etymologists believe that this idiom comes from when someone came close to winning one of the fixed games, but were unsuccessful in the end, earning them ‘No cigar’. This phrase is believed to have been shouted out and used by the fairground workers as a means of encouraging others to play and drawing crowds to their booth.
Evidence for this theory comes from the speed at which this saying travelled around the country (with the fairs). The earliest written accounts come from the late 1920s, and were used in a way that suggests that the general population was already familiar with the phrase. In the Long Island Daily Press on 18th May, 1929 the phrase was used as a headline to an article about Hugo Straub, who finished second in two presidential races he was running that both ended in the same week. The expression continued to be used in print throughout the 30s and 40s, and even appeared in the script of the 1935 film adaptation of ‘Annie Oakley’.
This idiom continues to be popular today, despite the stigma attached to both smoking and tobacco products in general. This is further surprising due to the reduction in popularity of cigar since the beginning of the 20th century.