Eighty-SixWednesday, August 25, 2010
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.
Morris, Mary and William Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. 2nd Ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.