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Where did the term
come from?

eight·y-six or 86
tr.v. eight·y-sixed or 86·ed, eight·y-six·ing or 86·ing,
eight·y-six·es or 86·Es Slang

1. a. To refuse to serve (an unwelcome customer)
....b. To ignore
2. a. To throw out; eject.
....b. To throw away; discard; get rid of; not use

FROM 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.

One theory 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.

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 clear-cut current meaning.

Other 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.

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 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



More 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.

** Maybe 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 it’s 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 States.

** 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.

~Gathered from Sources throughout the Internet

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