Posted by: Jack Henry | January 28, 2020

Editor’s Corner: 86

Dear Editrix,

I had a friend who, when ordering food, would use the term “86” to mean “omit that ingredient.” Someone might say, “I’ll have the cheeseburger, but 86 the onions.” Where exactly did that phrase come from?

Mr. L

Dear Mr. L,

I was thinking this might be an easy question, but my goodness, there are so many different theories about the origin of this phrase. I really couldn’t pick or choose the best…I’ll let you be the judge.

From St. Louis Magazine:

…the standard height of a door frame was 8 feet 6 inches, and when an obnoxious guest was shown the door, he was “86’d.” That pacified me until I later heard that it took 86 ladles to empty a pot of soup on an Army mess line. After that number of ladles, the soup was 86’d.

Then I did some research and realized the genesis of the term isn’t clear at all…

First, another soup pot reference. The term originated in the soup kitchens of the Great Depression, where the standard pot held 85 cups of soup, so the 86th person was out of luck.

Many say the term has military roots. The term originated during the Korean war, a reference to the F-86 fighter jet; when an F-86 shot down an enemy plane, it was 86’d.

The United States also has a Uniform Code of Military Justice that has an Article 86: Absence Without Leave, a.k.a AWOL.

The term was derived from military shorthand. Rotary phones had T on the 8 key and O on the 6 key, so to throw out (TO) something was to 86 it.

Or it may have originally been a bartender’s term. Alcohol in the Old West was 100 proof. When a patron would get too drunk, the barkeep would serve him a less potent, 86 proof liquor, thereby 86’ing him. The term may have come from Old Eighty-Six, a popular shaving powder in the old days. A pinch of that in a rowdy cowboy’s drink apparently would have him heading for the door.

Perhaps its origin lies in New York. Many stories back this up. There was a speakeasy bar at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village called Chumley’s, with no address on the door and several hidden exits. When the heat showed up, guests were known to 86 it, or remove themselves from the premises immediately.

In the days before a safety fence was installed on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, people would commit suicide by jumping from it. The deck was on the 86th floor.

Apparently, there was a local code in New York, Code 86, that made it a crime for bartenders to serve drunken patrons. The bartenders would tell such patrons that sorry, they’d been 86’d.

One of the elevated trains in New York terminated at 86th Street, at which point the conductor would toss any drunks who had passed out on board. The conductors began calling them 86’s.

Some say it started in the 86th precinct of the NYC police dept. Supposedly, when officers in other precincts made repeated mistakes, the threat of being sent out to the mean and shorthanded 86th was enough to make them straighten up.

Others say it originated at Delmonico’s Restaurant in NYC. Number 86 on their menu was a steak, the most popular item on the menu and one that often sold out. The term morphed into shorthand for being out of any item.

Or was it a filmmaker’s term? Light filters are categorized by number, the darkest filter being a #85. The mythical 86 filter would therefore be totally dark, and completely negate the image being photographed, 86 it.

There are those who claim the term refers to 86 inches, the standard depth of a grave in the U.S. So to 86 something is to bury it.

Perhaps it was a holdover from the days when news was delivered via teletype. To expedite this process, coded numbers were used for common actions. A “30” indicated a completed story, for example. Apparently, when a story/item was sent in error or should be discarded, the number 86 was used.

Explanations even stretch as far as the electrical industry, where devices had numbers—a 27 was an undervoltage relay, 43 was a selector switch, and an 86 was a trip and lockout device, so an 86 operation means the affected piece of equipment was out of service.

Another theory says that the term originated with the number codes used by soda jerks: 86 was the code indicating they were out of an item.

And the list goes on.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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