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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August 13, 2013 - 9:30am
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