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Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

I have often come across this idiom but still, I don't know when to say or use it! Even after several internet searches, I have trouble understanding the meaning of this idiom, and more precisely, when to use it.

I got the fact that it means – more or less – that "almost" is not enough, but the situations when to use it is still not crystal clear for me.

Could somebody enlighten me, give me examples? Thanks in advance! (Please consider that I have to teach this idiom to my students who are actually studying English as a foreign language.)

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    Carolyn M at YAHOO Answers answers: 'You get points in [the game of] horseshoes for coming close even if your horseshoe doesn't circle the post and fall at its foot. Likewise, you inflict injuries with a grenade that lands close but misses the exact target.' Otherwise, a miss is as good as a mile. – Edwin Ashworth May 12 '17 at 20:07
  • You seem to understand it fine. – Yosef Baskin May 12 '17 at 20:08
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    An ynche in a misse is as good as an ell. – choster May 12 '17 at 20:20
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    In a political election, a runner up with a fraction of a point less is just as far from power as one that lost by 20%. "They ran a good campaign and came very close" Response . "Our policies are in real trouble. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades". Employee, "We almost landed that big account." Boss "Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades". The idiom would not work where a proportional result is almost as good. "The charity picnic was $100k and we almost reached it with $96k raised". (a near miss still achieved 96% of the benefit) – Tom22 May 12 '17 at 20:33
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    The idiomatic US expression (since the 60s, at least) has been "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." – Hot Licks May 12 '17 at 21:12
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Charles Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder & Fred Shapiro, The [Yale] Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012) has this entry:

Close doesn't count except in horseshoes (and hand grenades) (and nuclear bombs)

1914 Lincoln {NE} Daily News 15 Aug.: "Close does not {sic} count only in horseshoes." 1921 Decatur {IL} Daily Review 3 Oct.: "Close counts in horseshoes only." 1932 Washington Post 8 Jul.: "Close doesn't count except in horseshoe pitching." 1970 Guthrian {Guthrie County IA} 26 Jan.: "Close only counts in horse shoes and grenades." DAP 102; YBQ Frank Robinson. The proverb, with its various accretions, probably originated as an anti-proverb based on "Close doesn't count."

The literal meaning of the saying is derived from the fact that you win points in horseshoes by landing your horseshoe within a horseshoe's breadth of the stake, even if it doesn't ring the stake or touch the stake. Hence, "close" counts in horseshoes. Likewise a hand grenade that explodes in the vicinity of its target, rather than directly on it, can still inflict lethal damage—as can a nuclear bomb.

Wikipedia's entry for horseshoes offers this account of the scoring system, although many people play informally by different house rules:

A live shoe that is not a ringer, but comes to rest six inches (6") or closer to the stake, has a value of one (1) point. This includes a “leaner”. If both of one player's horseshoes are closer than the opponent's, two points are scored. A ringer scores three points.

I suspect that the variant "almost doesn't count..." is more obscure to hearers because it doesn't emphasize the notion of physical closeness that lies at the core of the exceptions to the rule.

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  • How odd that some would add nuclear bombs to this saying. Surely with nuclear bombs close doesn't count either, but the other way around: a nuclear explosion will do an awful lot of damage even from definitely-not-close-at-all! – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 12 '17 at 20:46
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    @Janus: Yes, you could make a strong case for "Pretty far away doesn't count except with nuclear bombs." – Sven Yargs May 12 '17 at 20:50
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    The wording you quote is not at all idiomatic. "Close only counts in ..." is obviously more rhythmic and less of a tongue-twister. – Hot Licks May 12 '17 at 21:14
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    @HoLicks: I ran Elephind newspaper database searches for "Close only counts" and "Close counts only" prior to posting my answer, and the earliest match was from 1922 in the Madera County {California} Mercury: "And as close only counts in the game of 'horseshoes' this means Madera won the meet." The earliest Google Books match for the phrase is from the Wisconsin Engineer (1923–1924(?): "However 'close' counts only in horseshoe and the boys from Illinois had to be contented with 'almost' winning." ... – Sven Yargs May 12 '17 at 21:25
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    ...so I couldn't beat the Yale dictionary's earliest chronological instances (from 1914 and 1921) with instances that use what I agree is the idiomatically more common form of expressing this modern proverb. – Sven Yargs May 12 '17 at 21:26
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The chronologically third and fourth appearances I've found of the formulaic phrase 'close only counts in [something]' (and variants) do not mention horseshoes, but rather quoits. So, after "close does not count only in horseshoes" from the Lincoln Daily News (Lincoln, Nebraska) 15 Aug 1914 (paywalled link), comes this second appearance of the phrase concept in 1916:

Yes, there is a game in which 'close' counts. It is horseshoes.

Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona), 16 Apr 1916 (paywalled).

The third appearance I found is in The Union Postal Clerk of March, 1917, and this time quoits feature instead of horseshoes:

Day Rosemer — getting close counts in quoits only.

Then comes this fourth with reference to quoits from Evening Report (Lebanon, Pennsylvania), 10 Jan 1921 (paywalled):

It was close, but close only counts in quoits, and baby, how big these two points and the last remaining minutes of the fray looked to the Red and Blue.

That fourth appearance is followed closely by the 3 Oct 1921 appearance of the phrase with reference to horseshoes, as compiled by Doyle, Mieder and Shapiro in The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012).

The association of the phrase "close only counts" (variants) with quoits was suggestive, given the much longer history of quoits than horseshoes, but searches of the UK and US popular press, and Google Books, did not disgorge any attestations featuring quoits earlier than the 1914 and 1916 appearances featuring horseshoes.

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