Blowing Smoke

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang

Cigar-smoking cat and woman

AFTER years on the back burner, the nation's interest in big cigars has returned with a vengeance. Sales of premium cigars had in recent decades been declining steadily; a 10 percent gain registered in 1992-1993 was the first gain at all since 1970. According to the Cigar Association of America, sales in the first half of this year were up more than 50 percent from the same period a year ago. , where smokers can companionably pass the time free of worry about anti-smoking regulations, are now becoming a fixture in many upscale urban commercial districts. Cigarheads even have a new magazine, a lavish, glossy two-pound package of pride and puffery called Cigar Aficionado. Its editor and publisher, Marvin R. Shanken, paid more than $500,000 for John F. Kennedy's old walnut humidor (a gift from Milton Berle) when effects from the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were put up for auction last spring. Vice President Thomas Marshall in 1920 said that what this country needed was a "good five-cent cigar," but supersnob stogies now sell for as much as $35 apiece (and illegal Cuban cigars can go for much more on the black market). Today's average cigar smoker will find that his (or, increasingly, her) usually mild claros, stronger colorados, and dark, pungent maduros can cost a bundle.

Words descriptive of cigars -- including the word cigar itself, the ultimate etymology of which is uncertain -- are typically Spanish, Spain having been the conduit for the cigar's introduction to Europe. But whence the word stogie?

of a different sort were known to American travelers before the California Gold Rush. One diarist noted that in the course of his 1847 trek to the mouth of the Columbia River he had paid $4.50, an astronomical price at the time, for "a pair of stoga shoes, made in one of the Eastern States." Eight years later the Golden Era newspaper of San Francisco put in a good word for stogy boots, and around the turn of the century stogies remained a familiar if old-fashioned heartland term for rough brogans, or work shoes. The stoga boots (pronounced stogy in the many local dialects nationwide in which final "uh" sounds turn into "ee" sounds) seem to have been manufactured in the Conestoga Valley of Pennsylvania, where wainwrights, many of them recent immigrants from the Rhineland, had introduced the one-and-a-half-ton Conestoga wagon, drawn by a team of six or eight Conestoga horses, as early as 1717. (The Conestoga were an Indian tribe living along the Susquehanna River, to which the word Conestoga itself, perhaps meaning "muddy waters," would seem to have referred.)

boots, wagons, horses -- all were legendarily strong. Next came cigars. The short-lived Swedish colony in Pennsylvania was cultivating pipe tobacco by 1650, long before the Latin American-rolled cigarro had joined the tobacco pipe as a popular nicotine-delivery system. By 1810 Philadelphia cigarmakers alone were turning out 25 million cigars a year from homegrown as well as imported leaf. In 1860 Lancaster County and the Conestoga Valley produced more than two million pounds of tobacco. Conestoga tobacco and the cigars rolled from it were widely regarded as something less than the "sublime" products extolled by Lord Byron; indeed, the so-called "Havana from the land of Penn" became, literally, a butt of jokes. (Mark Twain claimed to prize Pittsburgh-rolled cigars precisely because they were vile, and quested for varieties even viler.) Sold as long nines and short sixes, popular lengths of the period, the stogy cigar did have an advantage: it was inexpensive. Stogies could be fired up, chomped on, enjoyed after a fashion, and stubbed out at a price of four for a penny, or roughly the equivalent of a quarter apiece at 1996 prices. These are the cigars that Ulysses S. Grant tends to be holding in photographs by Matthew Brady. Quality cigars were not likely to be called stogies in an offhand way until well into the current century, by which time deprecatory synonyms such as heater, stinker, rope, and eventually el ropo were available to play the pejorative role.

In the era of Twain and Grant cigar-smoking paraphernalia consisted mainly of a cigar cutter; the cigar itself was lit with a lucifer (safety match). Today, at cigar bars and elsewhere, humidors, pocket liners, and fancy lighters abound. The pronunciation "see-gar," which calls to mind the once acceptable spelling segar, has prompted an entrepreneur to create the Tee-Gar, a plastic cigar holder for golfers that, affixed to its own tee, will make sure that no smoke gets in your eyes or "garden chemicals" in your mouth while you spoil a good walk.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1996; Word Improvisation; Volume 278, No. 5; page 124.