This popular idiom means to fall short of a successful outcome and get nothing for your efforts. It is said to those who fail to win a prize or succeed at a particular action.
The phrase is believed to have arisen from the practice of giving cigars as prizes at carnivals in the US in the 19th century. Carnivals offer many games, some based around accuracy, others on strength. Prizes are usually awarded to the winners, while the losers are left with nothing at all.
Big stuffed animals are common prizes these days, but back in the day, fairground stalls gave out cigars as prizes.
The phrase is first recorded in print in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley:
“Close, Colonel, but no cigar!”
Throughout the 1930s, the phrase started appearing in newspapers and by the late 1940s was nearly ubiquitous. There was even a story in 1949 from Lima, Ohio about a cigar factory nearly burning down which used the phrase, “close, but no cigar.”
Close, but no cigar smoke?
You might be surprised that cigars, items which are now frowned on, were given as prizes but they were also once used as a form of celebration, usually after the birth of a baby. This tradition might date back to those Native North Americans who exchanged gifts at the birth of their children. Or, perhaps it was simply that men enjoyed smoking cigars.
I wonder what new mothers received, since after all they were doing all the work.
Today, of course, if you tried smoking a cigar in the hospital, you’d very likely be kicked out. Or, for that matter, anywhere else except your own private space.