86 that slang etymology

Sometimes the universe hints strongly at what I should write about. Recently I read two books in close succession that featured the same curious slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: 86.

First there was Merritt Tierce’s fierce first novel Love Me Back. Its narrator, who works in a restaurant, says:

Later that day I am in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list when the Bishop’s handler comes by.

Then I read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic memoir Fun Home, which shows another usage of 86 and a speculative origin story – but is it true? (Click images to embiggen.)

Two comic-book frames. #1 shows Bechdel and her mother on a street outside a building, with a tree and a passing stranger also visible. Bechdel: "Where was your apartment?" Mother, pointing: "4-E, up there." #2 shows them walking past an old wooden door. Mother: "This is Chumley's. Dad and I used to come drink here." Bechdel: "It's a bar? How come there's no sign?"

Three comic-book frames. #1 shows Bechdel and her mother walking on past the wooden door. Mother: "You just have to know about it." Bechdel, looking back: "Neat." #2 shows Bechdel and two friends at the door, now open, facing a security worker. Caption: "Years later, on an evening of bar-hopping, I entered this establishment with a gang of lesbian friends." Security: "Cover's fifteen dollars, ladies." Bechdel's friend: "FIFteen DOLLars?!" Next caption: We left, too naive to realize we'd been eighty-sixed. I didn't even know ther term eighty-six. When I did learn it, my retroactive mortification was softened by the knowledge that I'd taken part in such a lexicographical event." Frame #3 shows a dictionary entry for 86, including the text: "To throw away; discard. [Perhaps after Chumley's bar and restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, New York City.]"

The etymology of 86 is uncertain, but it probably emerged as waiters’ and bartenders’ slang in the 1920s–1930s. Some authorities suggest that it’s rhyming slang for nix, a word of Germanic origin, but that doesn’t explain why it’s not, say, 36 or 96.

Still, this is the general route offered, with varying degrees of certainty, by GDoS, AHD, M-W, ODO, and the OED. Michael Quinion mentions a few other routes. The dictionary depicted in Bechdel’s comic, incidentally, is the 1951 first edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, I think.

The OED’s first recorded use of slang eighty-six, in 1936, is as ‘an expression indicating that the supply of an item is exhausted, or that a customer is not to be served’. The first of these definitions is the one that applies to Tierce’s line above (‘in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list’).

The verb came later, in the sense ‘eject or debar (a person) from premises’, then in broader senses, such as the media advisor quoted in the New Yorker telling Robert Redford to ‘eighty-six the sideburns’. Again that’s per the OED, which dates the verb from 1959.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang takes it back further: the original usage to 1933, in Walter Winchell’s On Broadway column: ‘A Hollywood soda-jerker forwards this glossary of soda-fountain lingo out there … “Eighty-six” means all out of it.’ And the verb to 1948, in the Washington Post: ‘The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board eighty-sixed two Ninth st. grog centers yesterday – cut off their taps.’

Though I don’t hear it in Ireland, 86 proved an appealing bit of slang, producing other usages in subsequent decades: an exclamation meaning Get out! or Go away! (1964); and No! (1981); a verb meaning kill, murder, or execute (1978); and be finished or ready to leave (1999).

Now I can eighty-six this from my to-blog file.


Ben Zimmer discussed food-industry code on Lexicon Valley a few years ago and more recently at the Atlantic. He shares possible origins of 86 (including the Chumley’s-bar story) and other examples of food-industry code (81: a glass of water). His conclusion:

All of the speculation masks the likeliest origin, that it is simply a vestige of the arbitrary codes shouted out by soda clerks. And eighty-six has persisted thanks to the service industry’s continuing need to share signals—whether it has to do with removing menu items or removing customers.


19 Responses to 86 that slang etymology

  1. liamgrant65 says:

    Speaking of the etymology of words that are numbers — Any thoughts on the origins of the use of ’90’, as in, “The craic was ninety in the Isle of Man” (as heard from the Dubliners. Was it made up for the song, or does it predate the song?

  2. Virginia says:

    Great post, Stan. For some reason long forgotten, I’ve loved and used the term “eighty-six” since I first encountered it in the 1960s. Maybe it was said by someone I admired (and wanted to emulate) or had a young girl’s crush on. Time has eighty-sixed the specifics.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you, Virginia. I can’t remember when I first heard the slang, but it wasn’t as significant an encounter as yours; 86 only ever entered my passive vocabulary. I’ll try it out when I next get the chance, though!

      P.S. I’ve updated the post with links to deeper discussion of its origins and other food-industry code, if you’re interested.

  3. Alex Campbell says:

    Lest we not forget Agent 86. Any connection?

  4. Will Thomas says:

    I know it as meaning to throw something away. “I 86ed it.” For whatever reason I associate it with the military.

  5. SlideSF says:

    As a longtime bartender, I would never use 86 as a term for barring someone from an establishment unless they had already been a customer.

  6. Mike Senzer says:

    In the mid-1970s I remember “86” being used in the Navy (US) to refer to the disposal of obsolescent or broken equipment. It was interchangeable with the expression “deep six”. I worked in a communications-related field in the Navy and thought “86” was radio ‘shorthand’ that may have originated with the Morse Code telegraphers of the 19th century.

  7. ktschwarz says:

    Oh man, the *dictionaries* in Fun Home! Every text is drawn in its exact physical appearance, so accurately that the specific edition can be identified from the typeface and linebreaks. The panel with “eighty-six” is from the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition (2000); compare the page scan at the Internet Archive. In a rare lapse, AHD gave some unwarranted support to the Chumley’s origin story in their 3rd and 4th editions, but in the 5th (2011) edition they replaced it with “perhaps rhyming slang for nix”. But since Fun Home is not itself a work of lexicography, I’ll allow Bechdel the artistic license. :)

    The large panel with “queer” is from Merriam-Webster’s Second Unabridged (1934, reprinted up to 1960). No edition of the New World brand would be described as “mammoth”; that brand was a solid desk dictionary, but it was nowhere near the intimidatingly extreme bulk of the Merriam-Webster—three thousand *large* pages. (This one can’t be found online, but compare the earlier 1909 MW New International; you can tell it’s from the same lineage.)

    Bechdel’s parents could have bought this one as late as the year she was born, 1960; no way of knowing if they disdained to replace it with the Third (which *does* include the “homosexual” sense of “queer”) or just didn’t bother.

    Thought you’d like to know.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I would, and I do! And thank you for the correction on the dictionary depicted for eighty-six. It would be fascinating to read Bechdel’s thoughts on dictionaries specifically and their role in her home life, in childhood and adulthood.

      I grew up on Oxford and Collins dictionaries, mostly, and only later became familiar with a few American dictionaries; I don’t have much knowledge of their publishing histories beyond certain spotted outlines and highlights. So I greatly appreciate these observations, links, and insights.

  8. ktschwarz says:

    Thank you for rescuing that comment!

    I love how the comic’s texts are physical objects: the lines of type bend into the gutter, the definitions have bits of other definitions visible above and below. And on her blog, Bechdel talks about meeting a couple of editors of the AHD and reminiscing about childhood dictionaries; she didn’t know the edition of the mammoth dictionary, but “they were able to ascertain with a few questions that it was the Second”. (I bet I can guess the questions: 1. How big was it? 2. How long had your family had it? 3. Were all the headwords in all lowercase, even things like “russian wolfhound”? Even if you’re not sure of #2, #3 is decisive!)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, their materiality is so nicely drawn, and those panels really convey her love for and immersion in dictionary lore. Thanks for this great link! It’s my first visit to Bechdel’s blog, strangely. She seems to have posted on it regularly until May 2021. I know one of those lexicographers on Twitter; it’s fun to imagine them meeting for a lexicographical nerd-out.

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