Picture it: a 9-year-old kid running an egg-&-spoon race ends up crossing the finish line right behind the winner, before someone pats him on the back & says, “Sorry kid…close, but no cigar”. What do you think that would mean to the kid? Having never heard the saying before, he’d probably think, “Why is my fellow kid about to go off somewhere & smoke a stogie?” Thankfully, kids don’t usually receive cigars as prizes (or for any other reason), so this particular figure-of-speech was basically a way of saying the racer came close to winning but didn’t quite make it.
However, if you were to go back to the early 1900s, the cigar being referenced was actually, literally, a real cigar. You see, before stuffed animals became the standard fair game prize, folks usually competed to win actual cigars at shooting ranges & in other skill games. Carnival barkers would shout out, “Close, but no cigar” to contestants who fell just shy of clinching the coveted trophy stogie.
By the late 1920s, “close, but no cigar” began showing up outside of carnivals & fairs in non-game-related conversation. For instance, there was a Long Island Daily Press article, titled “Close; But No Cigar”, from May of 1929 that described an unlucky New York guy named Hugo Straub, who was believed “to have set a world’s record in the business of getting-defeated-for-the-presidency” because he “finished 2nd in no less than two presidential races within one week.” Who knows, though…maybe Mr. Straub treated himself to a nice cigar as a consolation prize. (Or, maybe two cigars…y’know, one for each loss).
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