What's the meaning of the phrase 'Eighty six'?
This little term originally meant that a restaurant had run out of an item that was on the menu.
Another meaning, which was adopted later, is an indication that something be got rid of, for example an unwelcome customer at a bar or restaurant. It seems likely that the second meaning developed from the first.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Eighty six'?
The term is American and originated in the restaurant trade. Both meanings loosely refer to something that was previously okay becoming not okay.
The earliest known example of the expression in print is found in the journal of the American Dialect Society - American Speech, 1936:
Eighty-six, item on the menu not on hand.
The actual origin is uncertain but is often suggested to be one of these:
- From Chumley's Bar and restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village NYC. (Note: although commonly said to be the source of the phrase, Chumley's didn't open until 1927, which is only a few years before the expression first appeared in print, which makes that attribution unlikely.)
- A reference to article 86 of the New York state liquor code which defines when bar patrons should be refused service.
- From Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City. Item number 86 on their menu, their house steak, was often unavailable during the restaurant's early years.
All of the above explanations attempt to make a link between the phrase 'eighty-six' and the number 86 - as an address, a menu item etc. None of the suggestions have any evidence to support them and rely on plausibility alone.
Another explanation, also lacking real evidence but at least as plausible is that eighty-six is rhyming slang for 'nix'. Nix has meant 'nothing' as UK and American slang since at least the 19th century. While rhyming slang is usually associated with the cockneys of London, it is much more widespread and rhyming slang terms have been coined in Australia, Scotland and America since the early 20th century. US slang terms include 'band in the box' for pox (syphilis), 'Anna McGuire' for fire, and so on. It is entirely possible that 'eighty-six' just arose as rhyming slang for 'nix'.