Stupid Question ™
July 20, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of the phrase “to 86,” meaning to terminate or use up something?
A: The first references to “86” appear in U.S. restaurant-worker slang of the 1930s (and probably originated at least 10 years earlier). The original meaning was “out of that food item” (usually expressed in the form, “We’re 86 on (x).”).
The term also came to mean, “Stop serving that customer,” and later still entered popular speech as a general term for dismissal or termination.
The origin of the term is completely unknown, which means we can all have fun guessing.
The current favorite guess is that it’s Cockney rhyming slang. This jargon of London’s working class operates as a secret code, substituting a common word with a pair of unrelated words, the second of which rhymes with the word being substituted. For example, “beer” becomes “pig’s ear,” and “kids” becomes “teapot lids.”
The theory is that “86” was rhyming slang for “nix.” Except “86” has never been confirmed as actual rhyming slang, and it’s unclear how Cockney slang would wind up in U.S. kitchens. Furthermore, there’s a final twist in using rhyming slang; once you know the proper word pair to substitute, you drop the second word: “beer” simply becomes “pig’s,” and “kids” becomes “teapots.” If “86” really stood for “nix,” it would likely be merely “80” in actual usage.
Slang etymologist Robert Chapman once claimed “86” was only one of several code numbers in restaurant slang, along with “81” (a glass of water) and “87” (“watch out”). But he offered no citations; if they were ever actually used, such terms were probably only inspired by “86.”
Chapman also suggested that “86” came from 86-proof whiskey being given to drunk customers in bars instead of stronger 100-proof. He had no evidence for this weak claim and later dropped it.
But it does bear some connection to a provocative early citation discovered by the etymologist J.D. Lighter. He discovered a skit, dating from the ’20s or ’30s, in which a waiter says, “My number is Eighty-Six,” and the customer responds comically by drawing out his own whiskey flask for a drink.
The meaning of the skit joke is unclear. Is it our “86,” an early mystery form of it, or something totally different?
Pop etymology suggests that in 1900s New York, 85 was the legal occupancy limit for bars; the 86th customer would be kicked out. But there’s no evidence for this, and much against it.
A few other slang terms might shed some light. “Six upon four” was old nautical slang for limited food rations (possibly meaning food for four men shared by six). “Sixers” and “eighters” in British slang were six- and eight-pound loaves. And starting in the 1930s, “88s” was telegraph operator slang for “love and kisses.”
It’s even possible that a pun is involved: “(A customer) ate (all) six (of some item)” becomes “86.”
But for now, we’re 86 on explanations.