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Eighty-Six

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Most restaurant jargon was created to eliminate confusion when yelling orders to the kitchen. For example, since "rye toast" could easily be mistaken for "dry toast" -- so the preferred method is to shout "whiskey!" That example's easily understood, but the term "86" is used in most restaurants by foodservice personnel who have no idea how or why it was created.

It's most commonly used in the industry to mean, "no longer available" -- as in "86 the lasagna!" It is less often used as shorthand for "it should be thrown away" -- as in "86 it." I’ve never heard the term used to signal a cancellation of a guest's order.

A lot of folk etymology has been used to explain the term's origin:

Some people believe that it was originally a nautical term. Supposedly, garbage was not to be thrown overboard until the ship was far enough from shore to be in water that was at least 86 fathoms deep. (I suspect there's some confusion with "deep six" here)

It has also been suggested to have originated as the last stop on a Chicago train line -- as in "86 -- everybody out!" (No one seems to know what line that might have been -- so that explanation is pretty shaky)

I've heard that it dates from the depression era -- when soup pots supposedly held 85 cups of soup (a variation on this refers to a menu that contained 85 items). However, the term was in use before the depression.

While "86" is used by bartenders and restaurant workers, it originated in soda-fountains, back in the 1920s. Soda jerks created numerical codes for virtually everything at work: a root beer was "55," the boss was "99," (consequently, "98" stood for the second in command -- a related meaning was "pest"), and "87 1/2" alerted one's colleagues that there was a good-looking girl out front.

I've known chefs who, when promoted to executive chef, were referred to as "99" and never knew why -- they just accepted it as some sort of local custom -- they were really surprised when I mentioned the term while we were discussing "86."

Do you remember the TV series Get Smart? Isn't it curious that Maxwell Smart's partner (Barbara Feldon) was called Agent 99? Were the writers (who had possibly worked as waiters -- or soda jerks -- when they were young) sending a subtle message about the real nature of her relationship to the bumbling spy? Surely, it was no accident that the code name for Smart (Don Adam) was Agent 86.


Reference

Morris, Mary and William Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. 2nd Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

3 Comments:

Blogger ephemeralist said...

Great post, Gary, perfect for Labor Day. I love the sneakiness of those numbers.

September 6, 2010 at 11:21 AM  
Anonymous gary said...

Thanks, Mr/Ms/Dr Ephemeralist!

I suspected there might be enough postings about end-of-summer grilling out there without another from me.

September 6, 2010 at 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Richard Kaplowitz said...

The RESTAURANT related meaning of the term 86'd is as follows:

During the prohibition days there's a speakeasy at 86 Bedford St. in the Village in Manhattan. When the coppers came for a raid, the shout was your all 86'd, in other words, get oughta here. The place is still there called CHUMLEYS, if you can find the secret entrance!
A number of qualities remain from Chumley's Prohibition history. Notably, the Barrow Street entrance has no exterior sign, being located at the end of a nondescript courtyard ("The Garden Door"), while the Bedford Street entrance, which opens to the sidewalk, is also unmarked. Inside, Chumley's is still equipped with the trap doors and secret stairs that comprised part of its elaborate subterfuge.
The term "86" originated when an unruly guest was escorted out the Bedford St. door, which held the address "86 Bedford St."
A different origin of this term is offered in "The History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York": "When the cops would very kindly call ahead before a [prohibition-era] raid, they'd tell the bartender to '86' his customers, meaning they should scram out the 86 Bedford door, while the police would come to the Pamela Court entrance." As cited in The History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York [Hardcover] by Jef Klein (Author), Cary Hazlegrove (Photographer)

Or, it came from: In the early days of the Remington and Royal typewriters, when paper was expensive and the results messy, overtyping to block out errors (e.g.: old prices on the daily menu or items out of stock) was common. Repeated typing of the digits 86 over a word would cover almost any previously typed word. The X was also used, and when you either typed "X" or "86" over a word the resulting edit was always called an "86" and anything so blotted out was "86'd". That's the connection with Delmonico's, and other downtown New York City eateries where the menus were printed for the day or week and had to be "overtyped" to eliminate items off the menu.

March 19, 2012 at 12:20 PM  

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