Why You Should Care About the Great Alfred Vance


The word OK has a mixed up, confusing and downright misleading history. Over the years it has held plenty of different meanings. It started as an abbreviation of the play on words “oll korrect” and became a political joke connected to Martin van Buren during the 1840 election, leading to a number of playful (and sometimes not-so-playful) plays on words.

For more details on the history of the word, see this article by Mental Floss.

The Great Alfred Vance, known to his friends as family by his proper name Alfred Peek Stevens, is a little-remembered figure born in 1839. But he’s responsible for the origins of two different modern word usages in the English language.


Vance loved performing, and his musical comedy acts wowed the crowds. Vance had a great rival in George Leybourne, also a musical performer, who wrote the famous song “Champagne Charlie”. The two were commonly compared to each other thanks to their similar careers in “lion comique”; for example, they both sang songs praising the different types of alcoholic drinks. The rumor goes that Vance ended their rivalry with the song “Beautiful Beer”.

Vance’s song song “Walking in the Zoo” achieved the normalization of two different words: the word “okay” and the word “zoo”.

“Okay” was already in use at the time, of course, but Vance made the first recorded use with today’s meaning with the line “The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.” This was the first recorded use of “okay” as the adjectival “good”.

Vance also created the word “zoo”. Previously, zoos had been called “zoological garden” – a bit of a mouthful even in 19th century lingo.

Let’s take a moment to thank The Great Alfred Vance for changing the way we use “okay”, and also making sure we don’t get tongue tied when we visit a zoo.

The walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.

Vance never stopped performing. He died while performing on the Sun Music Hall stage in 1888.


Where Does the Phrase “Close But No Cigar” Come From?

Have you ever said something and then done a complete double take and wondered where on Earth that phrase came from?

The English language is full of idioms that we use every day without a second thought. But it’s worth it to see where some of these phrases come from so that you understand why these crazy things are slipping out of your mouth.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Close, but no cigar.” It refers to any not-quite-successful attempt.

It’s well-known, even to people who have no interest in cigars. So where did it come from?

One of the most likely theories behind this phrase recalls a carnival game.file0001270304641

Most carnival games today offer prizes like stuffed animals or other cheap toys. But back in the day in the early 20th century, carnival workers gave cigars as prizes.

That looks odd today – but just remember how much people smoked back then.

Workers would yell “close, but no cigar!” if someone came close to winning. This would likely rile the player up for another go, making them spend more money to play again.

Rumors suggest that Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States from 1913 to 1921, commonly used the phrase, which he might have found in the penny novels printed at the time.

One of the first known prints of the phrase occurred in the script for the 1935 film Annie Oakley. It said, “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!”

The phrase appeared often in print from 1949 on, often in newspapers. A 1949 story in The Lima News, when The Lima House Cigar and Sporting Goods Store was just barely prevented from burning down, was titled “Close But No Cigar.”


The Phrase Finder

Phrase Origins