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Where Did the Term "86" Come From?

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

We’ve all heard someone used the term “86” in reference to doing away with something. There are a few schools of thought behind where the saying came from. Some have more legs than others—such as those of the restaurant industry—but to this day, there is still no official etymology. Here are a few possibilities.

Feel strongly about one of these theories or have another we didn’t mention? Feel free to let us know in the comments.

Restaurant Lingo

Regardless of whether it was the first to coin the phrase, the restaurant business in the 1930s was one of the main incubators for its usage and development. Believed to be slang for the word “nix,” it was initially used as a way of saying that the kitchen was out of something, as revealed in Walter Winchell’s 1933 newspaper column that featured a “glossary of soda-fountain lingo” used in restaurants during that time, according to Snopes. It later evolved into a code that restaurants and bars used when they wanted to cut someone off, because they were either rude, broke, or drunk, as in “86 that chump at the end of the bar.”

Prohibition Era Raids

This possible origin stems from the Prohibition era at a bar called Chumley’s located at 86 Bedford Street in New York City. To survive, many speakeasies had the police on somewhat of a payroll so that they might be warned of a raid. In the case of Chumley’s, it is said that police would call and tell the bartender to 86 his customers, which meant that 1) a raid was about to happen and 2) that they should all exit via the 86 Bedford door while the police would approach at the entrance on Pamela Court.

Take Out the Trash, U.S. Navy Style

Another plausible explanation for the saying is brought you by the U.S. Navy’s Allowance Type (AT) coding system that was used to identify and classify the status of inventory. The code AT-6 was assigned to inventory that was designated for disposal, specifically after World War II as the Navy decommissioned many of its warships and went through the process of cleaning out its storerooms where they kept spare parts. During this process, any parts that were labeled AT-6 were considered trash and thrown out. It is easy to see phonetically how this could result in the term “86” and the idea of throwing something away to become synonymous.  

Calm Down, Cowboy

Up until the 1980s, whiskey came in 100 or 86 proof. When a bartender noticed that a patron had drank too much of the 100 proof, they would scale back and serve them the 86 proof. According to some theories, in bar lingo, that person would have been “86’d.”  

Eight Feet Long, Six Feet Under

Perhaps the birth of this phrase occurred in death? The last time you can be “86’d” might be when they put you under the ground, as most standard graves are eight feet long and six feet deep. 

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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