The term eighty-six is restaurant/bar slang for an item that is out of stock or a customer that is to be denied service. The origin is obscure, but it seems likely that the number has no significance; it is simply part of a larger numbering scheme used by waiters and soda-jerks.
George Manker Watters and Arthur Hopkins’s 1927 play Burlesque contains this exchange, which appears to be a use of eighty-six in the sense of denying a customer service, although this is not certain:
Waiter...If you need any Scotch or gin, sir—...My number is Eighty Six...Skid...Yeah. Eighty Six. I know. (Waiter exits R. Skid draws enormous flask from pocket.)1
The earliest clear usage is from Walter Winchell’s column of 1 June 1933:
A Hollywood soda-jerker forwards this glossary of soda-fountain lingo out there [...] “Eighty-six” means all out of it..."Eighty-one" is a glass of water..."Thirteen" means one of the big bosses is drifting around [...] “Eighty-nine” means that a movie player of importance is in the store.2
The numbers described by Winchell are elaborated in a 29 December 1939 New York Times article:
The cabalistic mumbo jumbo of soda-fountain workers has always puzzled us [...] If one customer wants water, you call “Eighty-one.” If you want water for two customers, you call “Eighty-two.” The system, however, stops at “Eighty-five.” When a soda-stand worker calls “Eighty-six,” it is a sign-off; the store is out of whatever you happen to ask for.3
There are numerous explanations for eighty-six, none of which have any strong evidence to support them. The Oxford English Dictionary postulates that it may be rhyming slang for nix and many authorities tend to go with this explanation.4 The existence of a larger system for using numbers for various orders, however, militates against this explanation.
Some suggest that it may derive from Chumley’s Bar in Greenwich Village, which is located at 86 Bedford Street. This is chronologically possible as the existence of Chumley’s predates the earliest known use of the term by a few years, but there is no evidence supporting it. Other unsupported explanations include:
- A standard crew of eighty-five on British merchant ships (with the eighty-sixth sailor being left on shore)
- Eighty-five tables at New York’s Twenty-One club.
- The number of a law forbidding service of alcohol to intoxicated customers.
Its usage as a verb meaning to get rid of, dates only to 1955. From the Ed Woods film Bride of the Monster from that year:
The police want those monster stories eighty-sixed.5
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 700.
2Barry Popik, “Soda Jerk Slang & Coney Island Chicken (Winchell, 1933),” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 29 Dec 2001.
3Benjamin Zimmer, “Brownie Points,” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 20 Mar 2005.
5HDAS, v. 1, 700.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton