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.