December 5, 2013

The mysterious etymology of “86”



Before I worked as a server at a steak and seafood restaurant in North Carolina, I had never heard of “86” being used as a verb. But I caught on fast. Soon I was “86ing” olives from a dirty martini or tomatoes from a salad. There was even a button in the computer to do this — hitting 86 let us tell the kitchen or bar staff what to leave off a dish or drink.

Yesterday, I typed in an email to a colleague that we should probably 86 something from a list, and paused. Would the recipient of this email have any idea what I was talking about? And was that even an appropriate use of the word/number?

Some research revealed a whole world of conjectures about the possible origins of the phenomenon that apparently doesn’t just exist in restaurants. Merriam-Webster defines eighty-six as “is a slang term as a transitive verb to mean throw out or get rid of, or to refuse service to a customer.” But where the connection between the number and the function as a verb came from is where things get tricky.

Drawn from a Mental Floss article, the Urban Dictionary entry, and the fascinating uses in the Oxford English Dictionary, here are the most plausible or interesting possible stories behind the etymology of 86.

  • The OED lists the first appearance in 1936 in American Speech, defined as “Eighty-six, item on the menu not on hand.” Another website claims that it first appeared in newsman Walter Winchell’s column in 1933, “where it was presented as a part of a glossary for soda-fountain lingo.”
  • Eighty-six might just be a rhyming slang for “nix.”
  • Prohibition era raids in Brooklyn might have started it all: “This possible origin stems from the Prohibition era at a bar called Chumley’s located at 86 Bedford Street in New York City. To survive, many speakeasies had the police on somewhat of a payroll so that they might be warned of a raid. In the case of Chumley’s, it is said that police would call and tell the bartender to 86 his customers, which meant that 1) a raid was about to happen and 2) that they should all exit via the 86 Bedford door while the police would approach at the entrance on Pamela Court.”
  • A New York Times article in July 1931 reports Norman Mailer used the phrase: “On the evening of July 22, Mr. Mailer was filming a dream sequence at the house of Alfonso Ossorio in East Hampton, when Mr. Smith came into the house. ‘He told me, ‘You’re 86’d,’ Mr. Smith recalled yesterday. This is a barroom phrase that means ‘you’re banned in here.'”
  • In the movie The Candidate, a media advisor tells Robert Redford “Okay, now, for starters, we have to cut your hair and eighty-six the sideburns.”
  • The Navy might have used it to mean “take out the trash” because anything referred to with the Allowance Type code “AT-6” (say it out-loud and it sounds like 86)  meant that it should be thrown into a dumpster. In military logo, the code officially means “Non-COSAL excess item that does not have sufficient demand to maintain.”
  • If you drink too much 100-proof whiskey, the bartender might try to slow you down or  and serve you 86-proof instead.



    Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.

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