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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

How often has the timeworn expression been intoned, "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!"? Probably millions of times each day. It is easy to see where the expression comes from. Horseshoes is a popular sport where points are scored by tossing a horseshoe close to a stake 40 feet away. Grenades, when they detonate, send shrapnel into any object close-by. The clichéd phrase is often spoken by a bystander after listening to someone complain that he was not quite close enough to do something or win something. For example a basketball shot that takes a spin around a rim and then rolls out of the basket, or a poker hand one card short of a royal flush.

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Image

Part of the attraction of "horseshoes and hand grenades" must be the alliteration. The two "h"s have a humorous and harmonious sound in spite of their very different intents. The vivid imagery of flying steel means that an observer need not go into detail, simply saying "horseshoes and hand grenades" is enough. Some add "dancing" to the short-list where close counts, but this would ruin the effect. However, "hugging" might qualify.

Other phrases with much the same meaning, but less vivid imagery, are: "A miss is as good as a mile." and "Close, but no Cigar." The idea must be an important one if there are so many common colloquial clichés attached to it. Humans, are a competitive species. They root for success in many fields of endeavor from business, to sports, to table games. It is no surprise that people will comment on how close some unusual event was to occurring. Yet there are the great and the near-great, and it seems, someone must always remind the losers that there is "no substitute for victory". There are many who would decry this sentiment. However, it does have the effect of spurring individuals, teams, and whole nations to excellence and advancement.

Weird Al Yankovic wrote and performed a song called "Close, but No Cigar". In it he proposes a character who leaves several wonderful women, each with a minor flaw. He writes "Are we playing horseshoes, Honey?" and "Are we lobbing hand grenades, Kiddo?" The women were close, but not perfect. In the last stanza, he asks, "Are we doing government work here?" reminding us of the old saw, "Close enough for government work." This is yet another common cliché about coming close and missing. Yet, including government work in this gives us another twist. Why should something be close enough for government work and not any other kind of work? It is an obvious recognition by society that the government does not operate as efficiently as the private sector.

Horseshoes and hand grenades; yes, they do count even when they are only close, but when they hit, they count for even more!

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