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What is the origin of “close but no cigar?”

English is a tough language to master. Our idiomatic expressions must sound like sheer madness to those learning English as a second language: “straight from the horse’s mouth,” “let the cat out of the bag,” “pay through the nose…” can you imagine how weird that must sound if you’re unfamiliar with our language?

“Close but no cigar” is another popular idiom (and it frustratingly keeps popping up when I search for cigar news — Google needs an idiomatic subject filter!) The origin of the phrase is thought to be from the 19th or 20th century, when cigars were given out at carnivals as prizes for games of skill or chance. Sure beats a cheap stuffed animal made in China… though these carny stogies probably weren’t the greatest to begin with.

There is no hard proof of this origin, but what we do know is American newspapers picked up on the phrase in the mid-20th century and ran with it. I mean, can you imagine being a sports writer before the invention of the phrase “close but no cigar?”

What I find interesting is that this phrase is still in regular use despite all the smoking bans and public consternation surrounding tobacco products. It just goes to show the tenacity of the idiom and the cognitive dissonance the brain is capable of. If an anti-smoking crusader actually stopped to think when they uttered “close but no cigar” they would quickly realize the irony… if they actually got the cigar they certainly wouldn’t be happy with it! Then again, those anti-smoking people never seem like they’re happy…

While we’d like to pay tribute to the origin of the phrase with a carnival-style game of chance in which we give out premium cigars as prizes, but we can’t due to gambling laws, anti-smoking laws, zoning laws, tax laws… there are no end to the amount of regulatory bodies watching our (and your) every move.

I guess freedom is sometimes “close but no cigar” too.