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Eighty-six

To eighty-six something is to cancel it, reject it, or prevent it from coming to fruition, and to eighty-six a person is to eject them, especially from a business premises, or to remove them from a role. For example, a picnic might be eighty-sixed because of rain, an injured player might be eighty-sixed from tomorrow’s game, and a misbehaving child might have her TV time eighty-sixed.

Meanwhile, the verb still appears in its two older senses, which come from mid-20th-century restaurant lingo: (1) to take an item off the menu because it has run out, and (2) to refuse service (to someone). For instance, when a beer on tap runs out, it is eighty-sixed, and when a drunk bar patron gets in a fight, he or she might be eighty-sixed for good.

In its even older sense—originally from the 1930s, according to the OED—the word is a noun denoting (1) something that a restaurant or bar has run out of, or (2) a customer who is no longer to be served. The word is now rarely used this way.

There is little doubt that eighty-six was originally U.S. restaurant and bar lingo, but its exact derivation is not known. Theories abound, but none are especially plausible (though everyone seems to like the theory that eighty-six is rhyming slang for nix). Detailed summaries of some of these theories are easily found elsewhere on the web.


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Spelled out, the word is inflected eighty-sixed and eighty-sixing. It is sometimes written 86, though, in which case it’s usually inflected with an apostrophe: 86’d and 86’ing.

Examples

And there seems to be a recurring theme among mullet wearers — outside pressure from friends and family to eighty-six it. [Pittsburgh Post Gazette]

[B]e sure that all of the staff and management are aware of the circumstances and the identity of the eighty-sixed former patron. [The Bartender’s Best Friend, Mardee Haidin Regan]

Sandwich voters eighty-six extra meals tax [Cape Cod Times]

The tweets have since been removed, but a big thanks to Bleeding Cool for nabbing them before they were 86’d. [Dread Central]

John Hawkes, however, was the last person anyone might have suspected would get eighty-sixed from the Oscar proceedings. [Word & Film]

Annoyed, he moved to eighty-six her. In response, Jesse made a hands-up gesture of surrender but retreated only a few steps. [Freedomland, Richard Price]

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Comments

  1. “to eighty-six a person is to eject them”

    them?

    • Grammarist says:

      We embrace the singular “they,” “them,” and “their” where they are unobtrusive, and in fact we make a point to use them where they work so that we can do our small part to kill the old, misbegotten, anti-English bias against them. We expect comments like yours every time, though, and we understand where you’re coming from. If you prefer, just pretend it says, “to eighty-six a person is to eject him or her, especially from a business premises, or to remove him or her from a role.” We fully understand that some people regard this as more correct; we disagree.

    • Lowercase “t”?

  2. The way I heard it used in restaurants in the 1970s was as a descriptor: “Eight-six on the chicken soup.” I would appreciate if the author would better qualify the time-frame of “older sense”, or “even older sense”; are we talking about 50 years ago or 250 years ago?

    • Grammarist says:

      Thanks for the prompt. We’ve added two key phrases to clarify the time-frames, and also put in a link to the OED entry (subscription, I think) with examples of the noun going back to the 1930s (we couldn’t find any older than than this and in fact had trouble finding more than two or three instances of the noun in action, which is why it’s a verb in all the examples we went with here).

  3. Crosscounter says:

    Correction for fourth paragraph:

    “There is little doubt that eighty-six was originally U.S. restaurant and bar lingo, but it’s exact derivation is not known.”

    The “it’s” ought to be “its.”

  4. What about some mention of the now-related term “Deep Six” here?

  5. WordFreak says:

    But there’s no explanation here of WHY restaurant people picked that particular number to indicate removal or rejection. That’s what I really wanted to know.

    • Grammarist says:

      That is by design, as no one knows exactly how the word came about, though we do briefly address it in the second-to-last paragraph of the main section and link to a few outside sources that go into more depth about some of the theories. The idea that “eighty-six” is rhyming slang for “nix” is the most prevalent theory, though we wouldn’t want to overemphasize that one because we don’t find it especially convincing.

    • Steffy93 says:

      I have a fuzzy recollection of hearing that the origin had something to do with the military. It wasn’t the number, but a code used to indicate something that needed to be replaced. It might have been AT6? That’s the best I can can do.
      In restaurants, there is generally an 86 board, to indicate what products are not available. It’s also used to quickly inform co-workers, as in “86 salmon”.
      Some restaurants use the term 68 to indicate that an item has become available, “68 salmon”.

  6. Forthandback says:

    I’ve definitely seen and heard it used in restaurants in the last 5 years. Prior to that when I was waiting tables, we used it but given modern supply and inventory we rarely ran out of items. My wife also worked at a coffee shop with a small kitchen and they 86’d items all the time.

  7. Al .Ridolfo says:

    Chumly’s bar in Greenwich Village at 86 Bedford Street claim to have used the code “86 him” to mean “eject customer through the front door and tell him not to return” since the time of Prohibition. When I worked in NYC clubs in the 1990’s it was used in that sense at most bars.

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