Q From John Branch in the USA; related questions came from Danny Child and Rodney Breen in the UK, and Midge Peltonen in the USA: For years I’ve wondered about the origin of the term eighty-six, which I’ve heard mainly among restaurant workers. It seems to mean either that the restaurant is out of something (‘we’re eighty-six on flounder’) or, less often, that a thing should be gotten rid of (‘eighty-six that monkey — the health department is outside’). A television program recently reported it originated at a New York City speakeasy, Chumley’s, located at 86 Bedford Street. During Prohibition, when a raid was imminent, a cop on the take would call and warn the boss to ‘eighty-six it’: hide the booze and get the customers out. The story sounds plausible, but I wonder whether you can confirm it.
A One of the standard stories about the origin of this puzzling expression does connect it to Chumley’s, though the one I’ve heard is that when the staff forcefully ejected a customer from the premises, he would find himself lying woozily on the sidewalk looking up at the number 86 on the door. Neither story, I’m sorry to have to tell you, is likely to be true.
There are other explanations: that it derives from British merchant shipping, in which the standard crew was 85, so that the 86th man was left behind; that 86 was the number of a US law that forbade bartenders to serve a person who was drunk (stories disagree about which state it had been enacted in); that a fashionable New York restaurant had 85 tables, so the eighty-sixth was the one you gave to somebody whom you didn’t want to serve; that a restaurant (usually said to be in New York) had an especially popular item as number 86 on the menu, so that it frequently ran out; that a streetcar line in New York ended at 86th street, so “86” meant “everybody out!”; that when a customer was getting over-heated in a bar he was served with weakened spirits of only 86 degrees proof.
Whatever its origin, it does seem that eighty-six was first used in restaurants and bars, either in the late 1920s or in the early 1930s; the first firmly attested source is in the journal American Speech for February 1936; another example may be from the mid 1920s — the date is uncertain — which would rule out Chumley’s, as that bar didn’t open until 1927. The original sense was that the establishment had run out of an item on the menu. The extension in meaning to indicate that a patron was not to be served because he was obnoxious or drunk came along later (the first written example is from 1943); the verb meaning to discard is even more recent, from the 1950s.
The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may have been rhyming slang for nix, which seems plausible. Although it’s 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.