Dogs and Cigars

Photo: Mary

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Sarah C. asked:

“When and where did the term ‘doggie bag’ (as in bringing home leftovers from a restaurant) originate?”

It is fascinating that you ask this, since I have long used “doggie bag” as my example of how historical dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary can shed light on the history of things as well as the history of words. The OED cites the following as its first two illustrations of “doggie bag” and related terminology:

“It’s a pleasure to hand this beautiful Doggie Pak to your patrons To Take Home Bones For Their dog… Printed in three colors… It’s class.”
American Restaurant, Sept. 1952

“More and more restaurant meals are going to the dogs, if stepped-up demand for the ‘Doggy Bag’ is any indication.”
Huronite & Daily Plainsman (Huron, South Dakota), July 7, 1957

Jason Kernan asked:

“I’ve always wondered where “close but no cigar” came from.”

“Close, but no cigar” is widely used to signal a near miss. The earliest instance of its use anyone has found is in the 1935 film Annie Oakley, which has the line “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!”

Why a cigar? The reference appears to be to a carnival game of strength (the “Highball” or “Hi-Striker”) in which the contestant hits a lever with a sledgehammer to try to drive a weight high enough up a column to ring a bell at the top. The standard reward for ringing the bell is a cigar.

Do any readers have any other phrases or quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


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  1. James Smith says:

    I remember a quote but not who said it: “When art has a message it is no longer art but propaganda.”

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  2. Matt H. says:

    I’ve got one…”hedge your bets”?

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  3. Rob Jones says:

    What about “Happy as Larry” – who is Larry and why is he do bloody happy?!

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  4. Eric M. Jones. says:

    The National geographic magazine: Volume 57
    National Geographic Society (U.S.) – 1930 –
    They replied, making smoke at the same time and, as at Empress Augusta Bay, their salvos fell in patterns so tight they could be covered with a blanket, always close but no cigar, though on Claxton’s bridge the officers sloshed around …

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    • Fred Shapiro says:


      You do love those misdated Google Books hits. This one appears to date from World War II or later (there is an article about the battle of Guadalcanal in the volume), not from 1930.

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      • Eric M. Jones. says:

        I think you are wrong this time Fred. Volume 57 was 1930. I wasn’t depending on the date. There are others who have found this:

        I think the Guadalcanal article was not the battle, but something else.

        I think this need to be rechecked. There does not appear to be a digitized version of this.

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      • Garson O'Toole says:

        The Google Books database is an extraordinarily valuable resource, but it can be confusing because it contains many incorrectly dated items. The match in the supposed 1930 issue of National Geographic Society is an example of a confusing item. When I found it several months ago I concluded that the date was incorrect.

        One way to perform a cross-check on items in Google Books is based on a strategy of searching for other years and months in the target volume. For example, if one searches for “January” in the National Geographic volume that contains the phrase “close but no cigar” one discovers a matching snippet that says “he saluted on the quarter-deck of Montpelier on January 23, 1943, and accepted command of four cruisers”.

        This snippet match is very strong evidence that the date given by Google Books is incorrect. Future dates (with respect to the date of publication) do appear in books. But they are typically attached to future anticipated events. Also future dates appear in fictional accounts set in the future, but the National Geographic match does not seem to fit either of these possibilities.

        The National Geographic article snippet with “close but no cigar” also has the phrase “as at Empress Augusta Bay.” Wikipedia has an entry for the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay which occurred in 1943. Claxton was a participant. This is more suggestive evidence that the date is incorrect.

        Yet, I do think that antedating 1935 for the phrase “close but no cigar” is possible and will post a different candidate in a separate message.

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  5. Seth says:

    I have a small complaint on terminology. I believe ‘origin’ may used too loosely here, when it really means ‘first known recorded instance’.

    Given that language is an emergent phenomenon, my guess is that many of these phrases had reached relatively common usage in the spoken language before they were recorded.

    ‘Origin’ gives the impression that the phrase derived from the cited instances rather than emerging in the vernacular before being recorded on some media.

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  6. Tyler says:

    I have one for you. To “shoot the breeze.” I never understood how this could mean idle talk. Any clues?

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  7. Bart says:

    “Tighter than Dick’s hatband!” I use this all of the time as I learned it from my childhood mentor, my uncle Bill, in reference to many thing – making sure bolts are tightened; mayonnaise jar lids that won’t budge; bearings that are frozen to the shaft; good, solid information; etc…

    And now my son wants to know where it comes from.

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  8. Ross says:

    Prior to the late 1950s, most people fed their dogs table scraps, so “doggie bags” really were restaurant leftovers intended for the dog. The term stuck long after most people began feeding their pets commercial pet food and keeping the leftovers for themselves.

    I wonder how many years the phrases “got it on film” and “got it on tape” will outlast their respective physical media?

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