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According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, "86" is a slang term that is used in the American popular culture as a transitive verb to mean throw out or get rid of, particularly in the food service industry as a term to describe an item no longer available on the menu, or to refuse service to a customer. The Merriam Webster dictionary suggests the term may be associated with the word "nix" ("no" or a more general prohibition).
Several possible origins of the term 86 were suggested, all dated before the 1950s:
- United States Navy decommissioning. Another possible origin is from the U.S. Navy's Allowance Type (AT) coding system used for logistic purposes. The allowance type code is a single digit numeric that identifies the reason material is being carried in stock. Throughout the life-cycle of a warship, many pieces of equipment will be upgraded or replaced, requiring the allowance of onboard spare parts associated to the obsolete equipment to be disposed of. The AT code assigned to parts designated for disposal is AT-6. Following World War II, there were a great number of warships being decommissioned, sold, scrapped, or deactivated and placed in reserve (commonly referred to as "mothballed"). During this process, labor workers would bring spare parts up from the storerooms and the lead supply clerk would inform them what the disposition of their parts were by part number. Anything referred to as AT-6 (or by similar phonetic, eighty-six) was to be disposed of in the dumpster. This is where the term became synonymous with throwing something away.
- 86 Bedford Street. Author Jef Klein points to the bar Chumley's at 86 Bedford Street in the West Village of Lower Manhattan, as a source. Klein's 2006 book The History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York tells the story that, when the police would very kindly call ahead before a prohibition-era raid, they would 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.
- Empire State Building suicides. Historians believe the term 86ed is most likely associated with the Empire State Building. The first or lower elevators only went as far as the observation promenade on the 86th floor, and sometimes people would jump off the 86th floor to commit suicide.
- Camera filter. The term 86 may come from the movie business in Hollywood. When shooting on color film, a camera needs an 85 filter (amber in color) to balance the daylight. When moving indoors under tungsten light the filter is removed or replaced with a clear filter and this was referred to as the 86 filter.
- Roman slang. In the Summer of 86 BC the Siege of Athens and Piraeus ended when both were sacked by the Romans during the First Mithridatic War. When the siege of Athens ended and the city was taken, it was said that blood literally flowed through the streets. Further, the port city of Piraeus connecting Athens to the sea was burned to the ground as a symbolic gesture towards obedience. The saying goes that to '86' a person or group is to end argument or opposition in a final manner.
- electrician slang. In 1928, all electrical components of the power system then being installed across the United States were given standardized numbers to show their functional use on all electrical power system circuit diagrams. In the design of electrical power systems, the ANSI Standard Device Numbers (ANSI/IEEE Standard C37.2) denote what features a protective device supports (such as a relay or circuit breaker). These types of devices protect electrical systems and components from damage when an unwanted event occurs, such as an electrical fault. Device numbers are used to identify the functions of devices shown on a schematic diagram of a substation. Function descriptions are given in the standard. ANSI/IEEE C37.2-2008 is one of a continuing series of revisions of the standard, which originated in 1928. An 86 device is a LOCKOUT breaker or LOCKOUT relay, meaning a type of relay that must deliberately and manually be reset to avoid remote resetting without physical inspection. Linemen and other power system technicians familiar with the term were working their way across America as the country was electrified. The term "being 86ed" could have originated from their tendency to be 86ed (thrown out or locked out) of bars or other establishments.
Use of term
Today, the term "86", and especially its past participle, "86ed" is widely used in American culture and beyond.
- 1933, The most widely accepted theory of the term's origin states it derives from a code supposedly used in some restaurants in the 1930s, wherein 86 was a shortform among restaurant workers for 'We're all out of it.' Snippets of said code were published in newsman Walter Winchell's column in 1933, where it was presented as part of a "glossary of soda-fountain lingo."
- 1944, According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first verifiable use of 86 in the 'refuse service to' sense dates to a 1944 book about John Barrymore, a movie star of the 1920s famous for his acting and infamous for his drinking: "There was a bar in the Belasco building ... but Barrymore was known in that cubby as an 'eighty-six'. An 'eighty-six', in the patois of western dispensers, means: 'Don't serve him.'"
- In 1947, the song "Boogie Woogie Blue Plate" by Louis Jordan, one line is "86 on the cherry pies" as one of many examples of short-order restaurant lingo.
- 1957, whether it was the catalyst that propelled '86' into American popular culture or just helped reinforce it, Gore Vidal's play Visit to a Small Planet was a well-received comedy whose main character uses the command number "86" numerous times to destroy things. It was first shown on the Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1955 as a television play. In February 1957, it was released on New York City's Broadway as a very popular, Tony Award winning play, with actor Eddie Mayehoff, which ran for 388 performances at the Booth Theatre Thereafter, the play was released as a movie: Visit to a Small Planet, starring Jerry Lewis, was released in late 1960 and re-released in 1966 on a double billing. Lewis played the part of Kreton, an alien with special powers. To activate his powers, he used number commands, one of which was 86 and that destroyed things. He kills a plant by saying "eighty-six" and later threatens to kill someone with the same command number.
- In 1965, the spy spoof TV series Get Smart chose 86 as the number of its bumbling agent protagonist, thus the missions he worked on were "86'd".
- In 1973, Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity's Rainbow, used the term "86" in the line "They did finally 86 him out of Massachusetts Bay Colony." (The use of the term by characters in the novel, which takes place in 1944, is anachronistic.)
- In 1975, Tom Waits uses the term 86'd in his song "Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)" on the album Nighthawks at the Diner in the line "I've been 86'd from your scheme".
- In the late 1970s, The New York Times columnist Millstein frequently used the term 86'd in his articles. In the October 26, 1977 article, "A Night on the Tiles at Berry's," he writes, "(He'd been 86'd out of another place owned by the Reisdorffs for tweaking a man's nose only a short while before.)" and in the April 26, 1978 article, "Bistro: The View From the Grill; All in a day's work: burgers and Schopenhauer" he writes, "Sometimes somebody who is 86'd, a term that means the person is kicked out ..."
- Filmmaker Dave Markey made a documentary about the final tour of the infamous hardcore punk band Black Flag, entitled Reality 86'd. The movie was filmed in 1986, during the band's final tour, but wasn't released until 1991.
- In 1989, David B. Feinberg, published the novel "Eighty-sixed" contrasting life in New York just before HIV to life in 1986 when AIDS had become a major health crisis in the city.
- In the 1995 album Insomniac by Green Day, there was a song called "86." It was written by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and has reflected the band being "86'd" from 924 Gilman Street.
- The name of the hard rock/post-hardcore band Project 86 (formed in 1996) references this term.
- The British indie-rock band Subcircus released a single titled "86'd" in 1997.
- In the Codename: Kids Next Door cartoon, one of the child agents has codename 86 and is the grumpy head of the decommissioning center, thus having the job of eighty-sixing the other child agents.
- Dan Fante's 2009 novel, 86'd, is about a man who gets fired and battles his alcoholism.
- Poker player Doyle Brunson claims that the term originated from the old days of Las Vegas, referring to the mob's practice of taking someone to the desert outside Las Vegas and executing him "8 miles out and 6 feet down."
- "Eighty-six - Definition of eighty-six by Merriam-Webster". merriam-webster.com.
- NAVSUP P-485 Volume II. Defense Logistics Agency. pp. A9–5.
- Klein, Jef (2006). The History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York. Turner Publishing Company.
- "What does '86'd' or '86 It' Mean in Restaurant Jargon?". Culinary Lore. March 8, 2015. Retrieved August 12, 2015.
- Mahe, George (June 9, 2011). "Ask George: Where Does the Term "86'd" Come From?". St. Louis Magazine. Retrieved August 12, 2015.
- "linguistlist.org: Soda Jerk Slang & Coney Island Chicken (Winchell, 1933)". linguistlist.org.
- "snopes.com: Etymology of 86". snopes.com.
- New York Times, "The Theatre: 'Visit to a Small Planet'; Vidal's Foolish Notion Is Staged at Booth The Cast," by Brooks Atkinson; February 8, 1957, page 18
- A Visit to a Small Planet playbill, Comedy – Original, Booth Theatre First Preview: Opening Date: February 7, 1957 – Closing Date: January 11, 1958, Performances: 388, Playwright: Gore Vidal
- Visit to a Small Planet. 1960, Paramount Pictures.
- "Dan Fante, Confronting His Demons On The Page". NPR.org. 29 September 2009.
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