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Posted by Word Camel on August 27, 2002

In Reply to: 86ed posted by ESC on August 27, 2002

: I've heard the expression comes from the custom of saloons of old serving 100 proof whiskey to their "men" customers. If someone got too drunk and obnoxious they were then served only 86 proof whiskey, which was such a disgrace among the other "men" present that their embarrassment forced them to flee the bar.

: : I would disagree based on (among other things) the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one type of whiskey made at the 100 proof level and that is bonded Kentucky bourbon. 86 proof is historically the strength of whiskey. How could it be a disgrace to drink it? Plus if you are drunk and obnoxious, what do you care? Ever tried to humiliate a drunk?

: : I have read this theory before but I find it hard to credit. I do like it better than "French soldiers were issued 85 bullets. When you ran out you were 86'd."

: Another theory from the archives: Listening to America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982) has several pages devoted to "Lunch-Counter Terms." Mr. Flexner says, "Since the 1850s waiters and cooks have been communicating by verbal shorthand..." There are several terms listed including numbers such as "86." "86, rhymes with and means 'nix,' usually called out from cook to waiter or waitress, meaning 'we're all out of it, we don't have any.' Also used to mean 'no sale' and as a code meaning a person is not to be served, because he is broke, drunk, etc."

When my father was stationed in Germany in the early 60's, soldiers were issued with books - actually with all the illustrations they were almost comic books - with common German phrases for every day situations. The words were spelled the way they sounded, however. The German word for "nothing", "nichts" was spelled "nix". "machts nichts", literally "it matters nothing" became "mox nix." Perhaps this might help explain use of "nix" in the short hand described. Maybe the German speakers among us could comment as to whether this is plausible.

Who intends this as speculation, not falsehood.

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