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The number 86 is used as a verb in restaurant jargon. This usage has also found its way into common parlance. When you 86’d or you are told to 86 it, in a restaurant, it can mean a couple of different things.
For more unusual words see Another Word A Day: An All-New Romp through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English.
To 86 a menu item might mean that it is temporarily unavailable, usually because a primary ingredient has run out. For example, if the special of the night is sea bass and the kitchen is out of sea bass, the wait-staff might be told to “86 the sea bass.” This tells them to let the customers know that the sea bass is no longer available. Yes, the past tense is 86’d. “What happened to the sea bass?” you ask. “The sea bass was 86’d.”
Here’s a hint to waiters: Never tell your customers that you have “run out of something.” Let’s say that the kitchen is out of scallops. Say, “the scallops have sold out.” The former makes it seem as if the kitchen, and by extension, the restaurant is mismanaged and someone failed to order enough scallop. The latter makes it seem as if business is booming and the scallops were popular and tasty.
86 doesn’t only mean that the kitchen is out of an ingredient, it also means to “get rid of something.” So, if something has gone bad and a kitchen staffer is told to “86 it,” this means to throw it out.
Origin of 86 in Restaurant Lingo
It is not known for certain where this lingo began. It is such a ubiquitous part of restaurant jargon that it would be hard to trace it accurately. A couple of possible origins are suggested by the Culinary Institute of America 1:
- 86 may come from the depression era when soup pots held 85 cups of soup. When the pot was empty, “86 soup” was called out. This one seems like a bit of a stretch, but anything is possible.
- Like many terms, it may have originated with sailing vessels. Before garbage can be thrown overboard (gotten rid of) the ship must be at 86 fathoms in depth.
- It may have originated from a Chicago train line for which the last stop was stop 86, or the end of the line. This is also claimed to have been a New York line. At the end of the line, stop 86, the conductor would have to eject the drunk passengers, who had fallen asleep and failed to debark at previous stops. He 86’d them.
- A very likely origin is the lingo of soda fountains. Soda jerks had codes and jargon for almost everything, most of it quite colorful, but some of it as simple as numbers. During the 1920’s, 55 meant root beer, 99 meant the boss-man, 98 meant the bossman’s second in command (who was also called “pest”). It is not suggested how 86 was used, and if it was used the same way as it is used today.
- It may possibly have come from diner slang, but there is no evidence to suggest this.
- The hotel and bar industries also use the term, but to refer to ejecting someone from the premises, as in an unruly guest or an over-intoxicated patron. Bar and saloon culture suggests its own origin stories for 86. One claim is that it comes from the Old West, where, when a bar customer had become drunk and disorderly, the bar would serve him a drink with 86 percent alcohol by volume, or 172 proof. That is very, very strong, and would basically knock the trouble-maker out. He had been 86’d. In other versions, the intent is a bit more benign. Since alcohol served was usually 100 proof, the over-drunk patron would be served a slightly weaker 86 proof. This makes little sense, of course, as the 86 proof liquor would be quite enough to keep him drunk and get him drunker.
- Another claim is that the number comes from sections of the liquor laws. For example, local code number 86 in New York makes it illegal for bartenders to serve drunk patrons. So, a patron that had had his fill was 86’d. This makes a bit of sense and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were correct.
- An additional bar claim is that the term came from the addresses of famous bars on the East Coast. Perhaps the bar most frequently mentioned is Chumley’s bar at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, New York. In the television show Elementary, Sherlock Holmes, played by Johnny Lee Miller, recounts this unlikely story, claiming that the back door of Chumley’s had the address 86 written on it and unruly customers would be thrown out the back door, thus “86’d.” The actual address of the bar and former speakeasy, however, was 86 Bedford so there is no reason to believe that the back door should have special status. Regardless, this story is poppycock because the term was already in use before the bar ever opened.
86 is to ‘Bury it Six Feet Under’
It has been suggested that the standard depth of a grave used to be 7 feet 2 inches underground, or 86 inches total. So to 86 something was to bury it.
Various Other Origin Stories for 86
In a stretch, the F-86 Sabre fighter, since it had so many “kills,” has been suggested as an origin. Some other possible origins given below. The problem with most of these is that it is so unlikely that these would have found their way into common parlance, or even common restaurant and bar parlance. Others are just plain silly. There are a few that may have some credibility.
- Referred to the standard height of the door frame you were being kicked out of.
- Referred to people jumping off the 86’th floor of the Empire State building to commit suicide.
- Came from a shaving powder in the Old West called “Old Eighty Six,” a pinch of which would be placed in a trouble-makers drink, to send him running from the saloon with a case of the runs.
- Camera lens filters which were numbered by their opaqueness, going up to 85. The nonexistent 86 filter would be completely opaque, not allowing any light through.
- Old-time newspapers used number codes at the bottom of teletype sheets to indicate what was to be done with the copy. 86 would mean to be discarded, 86 was printed at the bottom.
- Referred to the 86th precinct in New York city, where cops were sent when they weren’t cutting the mustard. The precinct was in a rough neighborhood and the cops were extremely overworked. Nobody wanted to be 86’d so just the threat was enough to get them to behave.
Is There an Opposite for 86?
Although this is nowhere near as common, the term 68 is sometimes used when a menu item is once again available. No need to explain this one, it’s just 86 in reverse an probably has no other origin than the obvious reversal of the numbers to mean the opposite. When you get some scallops in after they had been 86’d, you “68 the scallops,” or put them back on the menu.
1. The Culinary Institute of America. Remarkable Service:. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
2. Garg, Anu. Another Word a Day: An All-new Romp through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2006.
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