A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from July 01, 2005
“86” (not from Chumley’s or Empire State Building)
"Eighty six," in restaurant lingo, means to be out of an item. It is sometimes claimed that it comes from Chumley's, at 86 Bedford Street, or that it comes from the Empire State Building, where an elevator takes you to the 86th floor.

I found the earliest citation so far -- in a Walter Winchell column from 1933. Winchell, the great Broadway slang man, records this bit of slang from Hollywood. This 1933 date and the fact that Winchell does not claim any New York connection rules out both Chumley's and the Empire State Building theories; both Chumley's (1927) and the Empire State Building (1931) were new. Slang for the Empire State Building would hardly be unknown.

Other New York theories for "eighty six" seem equally dubious, and it is unlikely that Walter Winchell would not record them, had they existed.

World Wide Words

[Q] From John Branch in the USA; related questions came from Danny Child and Rodney Breen in the UK, and Midge Peltonen in the USA: "For years I've wondered about the origin of the term eighty-six, which I've heard mainly among restaurant workers. It seems to mean either that the restaurant is out of something ('we're eighty-six on flounder') or, less often, that something should be gotten rid of ('eighty-six that monkey—the health department is outside'). A television program recently reported that it originated at a New York City speakeasy, Chumley's, located at 86 Bedford Street. During Prohibition, when a raid was imminent, a cop on the take would call and warn the proprietor to 'eighty-six it': hide the booze and get the customers out. The story sounds plausible, but I wonder whether you can confirm it."

[A] One of the standard stories about the origin of this puzzling expression does connect it to Chumley's, though the one I've heard is that when a customer was forcefully ejected from the premises, he would find himself lying woozily on the sidewalk looking up at the number 86 on the door. Neither story, I'm sorry to have to tell you, is likely to be true.

There are other explanations: that it derives from British merchant shipping, in which the standard crew was 85, so that the 86th man was left behind; that 86 was the number of the American law that forbade bartenders to serve anyone who was drunk (stories disagree about which state it had been enacted in); that a fashionable New York restaurant only had 85 tables, so the eighty-sixth was the one you gave to somebody you didn't want to serve; or that a restaurant (usually said to be in New York) had an especially popular item as number 86 on the menu, so that it frequently ran out. All but the last send my bullshit detector into overload.

Another explanation frequently given relates the expression to the strengths of spirits served in bars. It is said that these were normally 100 degrees proof but that when a customer was getting over-heated they served instead a weaker brew that was only 86 degrees proof. However, nobody so far as I know has yet produced even halfway convincing evidence that this the origin.

After this piece first appeared, John Tracy McGrath, a subscriber, wrote with a suggestion that, if not true, certainly deserves to be: "The term was current in the late 1930s when I was a teenager in New York City. It was supposed to have derived from the street-car line that operated on First Avenue on the East Side of Manhattan. The line ran from 14th Street to 86th Street (both major east-west streets). As a north-bound car came to the last stop, the motorman would call out (usually in a rich brogue), "Eighty-six! End of the line! All out!"

Whatever its origin, it does seem that eighty-six was first used in restaurants and bars, either in the late 1920s or early 1930s; the first firmly attested source is in the journal American Speech for February 1936; another example may be from the mid 1920s—the date is uncertain—which would rule out Chumley's, as it didn't open until 1927. The original sense was that the establishment had run out of some item on the menu.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may have been rhyming slang for nix, which seems plausible. Although it's often thought of as typically American, nix actually entered the language in the latter part of the eighteenth century in Britain; it was borrowed from a version of the German nichts, nothing. But it seems that eighty-six was created as rhyming slang in the United States.

The sense that indicated a patron was not to be served because he was drunk or obnoxious appeared later (the first written example is only from 1943); the verb meaning to discard or get rid of something is even more recent, from the 1950s.

Many people quote other examples of number slang used by hard-pressed servers: 99 meant "the manager is prowling about" and 98 similarly referred to the assistant manager (was 97 a busybody child who wanted to grow up to be a manager?); 19 is a banana split; 55 is root beer, and so on. Presumably some of these related to the numbering on a standard menu somewhere at some time, but the details have been lost.

1 June 1933, Havana (Cuba) Evening Telegram, Walter Winchell column, pg. 2, col. 3:
A Hollywood soda-jerker forwards this glossary of soda-fountain lingo out there..."Shoot one" and "Draw one" is one coke and one coffee..."Shoot one in the red!" means a cherry coke...An "echo" is a repeat order..."Eighty-six" means all out of it..."Eighty-one" is a glass of water..."Thirteen" means one of the big bosses is drifting around...A "red ball" is an orangeade..."Squeeze one" is a limeade..."Eighty-nine" means that a movie player of importance is in the store, and "Twisted, choke and make it cackle!" means a chocolate malted milk - with an egg in it.

10 July 1938, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 4, col. 7:
Car-Hop Jargon Complicated, but
If Mastered Is Never Forgotten
And Makes Taking Orders Simple
Have you never been sitting in your favorite drug store peacefully sipping a tall cool drink or munching an ice cream cone and meditating passively about something far away, only to have your musings harshly interrupted by a voice from the back shouting to another person behind the counter:

"Shoot a crowd; bust one; Waco; straw in, all the way; eighty-six!"

Certainly you have. But you probably wouldn't believe that all those words so uttered were orders for:

Three cokes, a lemonade, a Dr. Pepper, a strawberry soda with strawberry ice cream, and six glasses of water.

In "soda-buster" or "car-hop" parlance, practically every drink and delicacy concocted behind the fountain has its own individual name, shortened usually or made more impressive for purposes of remembering by association with something else.

Although some of the downtown drug stores have eliminated the use of such slang by substituting written orders for everything, beach drive-in stands still largely use the slang system for drinks, and some still do for orders of food.

Like swimming the car-hops say, once the lingo is mastered, it is never forgotten. About two months are required for complete mastery of the auxiliary language, and after that apprenticeship, any novice car-hop develops all the confidence necessary to bawl out abbreviated English with the best of the veterans.

After the car-hop places the order, the person behind the fountain or counter, often called the "soda-buster," repeats or "echoes" the order to avoid mistakes in filling it.

The next time you stop by your favorite drive-in stand or drug store for a drink, have the following dictionary of soda jargon at your elbow. When the car-hops get busy and start shouting their orders at the fountain, don't be upset or curious. Look up what your neighbor is ordering. And don't fool yourself. It's not as easy as it sounds.

"Eighty" -- a glass of water. Add one for each additional glass. However, "eighty-six" shouted by the man or girl behind the fountain (Col. 8 -- ed.) usually means, "We're out of that. Try something else." In some places, "eighty-nine" means that an attractive girl has entered the place, and all accordingly turn to look at her.

16 April 1940, Paris (TX) News, "Drug Store Slang Makes Etymologists Blush," pg. 8, cols. 2-3:
If you just want a glass of water, "80" is what the soda jerker will call out. The number of glasses of water ordered is signified by the number added to 80 -- in other words, 82 means two glasses of water, 83 means three glasses of water, and so on. The number 86, however, means "we don't have any," and 89 means an attractive girl is coming in.

31 January 1942, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune, "White Collar Girl" by Ruth MacKay, pg. 13, col. 2:
Soda Fountain Slanguage.
"Burn one" -- chocolate malted milk.
"O. J." -- orange juice.
"86" -- don't have it.

17 April 1949, Sunday News-Democrat (Tallahassee, FL), "Jaunty Jargon of Soda Fountain Meaningful: 'Jerks" Have a Word For It -- or Number!" by Steve Yates, sec. 2, pg. 9, col. 2:
81-85 -- Glasses of water.
86 -- Don't have any.

September 1949, Hearst's International Combined with Cosmopolitan (New York, NY), "Gimme a 51 and a Parlez-Vous," pg. 82, col. 3:
Here's a list which may help you solve some of the mystic language which is shouted behind the soda fountain:
10. 81 (Glass of water)
11. 82 (Two glasses of water)

10 June 1951, Miami (FL) Sunday News, "A Language Of Their Own" by Harvey Keeler, Miami Sunday News Magazine sec., pg. 5, cols. 1-2:
Numbers from 81 to 85 produce glasses of water numbering from one to five. Eighty-six means there is no more of any particular item. Why these numbers are used no one seems to know, but it is generally agreed that the custom started in New York city.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityNames/Phrases • Friday, July 01, 2005 • Permalink

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