SNOPES : 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 start-up costs of your business
venture, or that a friend who made a spectacle of himself in a bar was 86'd from
the place, or that a Mob boss had a particularly troublesome competitor 86'd),
the origin of this now omnibus term remains obscure.
posits that Chumley's Bar (at 86 Bedford Street in New York) was the inspiration
for the term. Unruly patrons thrown out of that establishment were said to land
in the street from whence they would have a clear view of the 86 over the door,
leading to their ruefully concluding they'd been 86ed. One problem with that supposition
is why, if that were so, they didn't consider themselves 'Chumley'd'. During Prohibition,
Chumley's was a speakeasy owned by Leland Stanford Chumley. It also served as
the headquarters and printing office of the Industrial Workers of the World
(or the "Wobblies") in New York. When the Wobblies held their meetings
in the front room of the restaurant and the cops were on the way, someone would
shout "86," and they would all exit through the back door. Chumley's
was frequented by a seemingly infinite list of famous authors and public figures.
An abbreviated list would include: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna
St. Vincent Millay, Arthur Miller, James Agee, e.e. cummings, John Dos Passos,
William Faulkner, Allen Ginsberg, Erica Jong, Jack Kerouac, Sinclair Lewis, Norman
Mailer, W. Somerset Maugham, Margaret Mead, J.D. Salinger, Orson Welles, and Thornton
Wilder, among many, many others.
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.'"
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
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"?
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 clear-cut current
conjectures suggest that specific restaurants or watering holes were legally barred
from hosting more than 85 patrons on their premises at any one time, thus the
86th person to attempt to gain entry would be denied service. Or that a particular
legal code (such as one governing liquor laws) contained an Article 86 that had
something to do with refusing service or otherwise saying no to someone. Those
theories are shaky at best, in that no evidence in support of either has yet surfaced.
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 Article 86 having something to do
with barring service to a potential customer). Nix therefore appears the more
likely of all the conjectures. The URL for this page is http://www.snopes.com/language/stories/86.asp
theories of the origin of this usage include (in no particular order):
Eighty miles out and six feet under; when a person who is to be killed
by the mafia is forced to dig his own grave many miles away from civilization.
it derives from British merchant shipping, in which the standard crew was 85,
so that the 86th man was left behind.
** The term came
into popular use among soldiers and veterans to describe missing soldiers as 86'd.
Rather than describe buddies missing in action, it was slang to describe the MIA
as being AWOL, therefore violating UCMJ Sub Chapter X Article 86.
Another explanation is the possibility of a simple variation of the
slang term deep six, which has identical meaning, and is simply meant to describe
the approximate depth of water needed for a burial at sea.
One possible theory is the public outdoor observatory on the 86th floor
of the Empire State Building, because its been the site of more than 30 suicides.
Another origin related to the Empire State Building is the fact that
all the elevators stop at the 86th floor. Hence, everyone had to leave. The building
opened in 1931, apparently a few years before the term became popular.
The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may have been rhyming slang for nix,
which seems plausible. Although its often thought of as typically American,
nix actually entered the language in the latter part of the eighteenth
century in Britain; it was borrowed from a version of the German nichts,
nothing. But it seems that eighty-six was created as rhyming slang in the United
For many baseball fans, the most popular if misplaced reference was
born of the 1986 playoff debacle for the Boston Red Sox. Game 6 and (eventually)
the World Series slipped through the glove of first baseman Bill Buckner in the
bottom of the 9th inning. The Sox didn't recover from the letdown in time for
Game 7 and the New York Mets took the '86 crown. With Red Sox fans long considering
the team to be cursed from trading Babe Ruth for cash and the 1986 World Series
representing the closest shot the team had at winning the World Series in decades,
the term '86 took on the meaning of "not happening."
"Eighty-six" is attested as a verb meaning "get rid
of" from 1955 on. It was surely in reference to this meaning that Maxwell
Smart, the hero of the 1960s sitcom "Get Smart!", was Agent 86.