Claim: The term 86 (to get rid of someone or something) entered the English language as part of a restaurant code.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, February 2009]
Origins: One of the many oddball terms that has crept into the English language in the past century is a peculiarly inexplicable one: the verbal shortform of '86' to mean 'to dismiss or quash,' 'to bar entry or further service to,' and even 'to kill.' While its uses have come to be widespread (one can say that the bank 86'd your scheme to have it underwrite the
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first verifiable use of 86 in the 'refuse service to' sense dates to a 1944 book about John Barrymore, a movie star of the 1920s famous for his acting and infamous for his drinking: "There was a bar in the Belasco building ... but Barrymore was known in that cubby as an 'eighty-six'. An 'eighty-six', in the patois of western dispensers, means: 'Don't serve him.'"
The most widely accepted theory of the term's origin states it derives from a code supposedly used in some restaurants in the 1930s, wherein 86 was a shortform among restaurant workers for 'We're all out of it.' Snippets of said code were published in newsman Walter Winchell's column in 1933, where it was presented as part of a "glossary of soda-fountain
The meaning of 86 advanced by the restaurant code hypothesis presents it as an announcement that an eatery has run out of a particular item, whereas the usage people are familiar with positions 86 as a command that something or someone be gotten rid of. Could a term meant to communicate "We're out of strawberry ice cream, so tell people who try to order it that they'll have to choose something else" morph into "We no longer want that person on our property; show him the door" or "Dump that batch of vaccine; something's wrong with it"? More simply, how does "We don't have any" become "Get rid of what we have"?
The 86 of the restaurant code of the 1930s (which could have slipped into the papers as a leg-pull perpetrated on an unwary journalist) never seemed to be reflected in anything other than newspaper articles touting the code itself. Given that slang common to its times seems to effortlessly work its ways into all sorts of popular culture outlets (novels, radio shows, plays, movies), that 86 apparently took until 1944 to appear in as much as even one book tends to argue against its being in common parlance at the time the restaurant code was supposedly all the rage. Also, when it did appear, it had nothing to do with "We're all out of that item," the supposed original meaning, but instead was a presentation of "Deny that fellow service," one popular form of its
Another theory posits that Chumley's Bar (at 86 Bedford Street in
Other conjectures suggest that specific restaurants or watering holes were legally barred from hosting more than
Far more outlandish explanations have also been offered. One posits that cowboys already well into their cups would be surreptitiously served
Some think to attempt to tie the origin of the term to
Similarly, the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) list of Standard Device Numbers gets looked to by some because its item
Then there are those who look to the abortion drug
Restaurant code and all other theories so far mentioned aside, one hypothesis as to the term's origin appears to hold water, at least in so far as no part of it seems to run counter to any other part. By its lights, 86 is rhyming slang for nix, a word meaning 'to forbid, refuse, veto' (as in "The boss nixed my great plan for reorganizing the company"). Nix carries a clear meaning of 'say no to, turn down, forbid,' which is the primary meaning ascribed to 86. Yet unlike other theories about how 86 entered the language, neither are there supposed earlier forms conveying a different meaning (e.g., the restaurant code), alternative forms the terms could more reasonably have taken (Chumley'd), nor documentary evidence supporting the posit's claim (liquor codes that included an
Barbara "maxwell smarter" Mikkelson
Last updated: 21 January 2015