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Hey, Matt:

Why no column in the October 26 Reader? No questions worth answering? Maybe this will fit the bill. Why does 86’d mean getting tossed out or ejected? I’m not leaving until I find out. — KMcL, SD

The 1920s produced a lot of goofy slang — stuff like the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajamas and 23 skidoo. At the time, soda jerks developed their own number-based shorthand. At first “86” was code from the cook to the waiter indicating they were all out of whatever the customer just ordered. Bartenders in speakeasies adopted it to mean, “No more hooch for that guy. Get him off the floor and boot him out of here.” And why no column? I’d just washed the elves and couldn’t do a thing with them.


About 40+ years ago, the Uniform Code of Military Justice had Article 86 as the absence without permission. I remember asking where someone was and getting the answer, "He 86'd over the weekend." I checked my moldy old 1951 edition to be sure.

-- Gene, the Incredible Librarian, retired


One would think with all the military around here you would have found out that the "86" is one of the NRTS codes used for disposition of items "Not Repairable This Station," "86" meaning trash.

-- Retrogoofy, the net

Asked the elves to thumb through their tiny Websterettes, and they define "coincidence" as "an accidental sequence of events that appear to have a causal relationship." Although I confess that both of these explanations for "86" are more appealing than the traditional short-order-cook-slang story. Gene's 1951 copy of the UCMJ is the first edition of the modern laws. Before that date, the military still operated under 17th-century laws adopted from the British. The NRTS codes are also too new to be the actual origin of the term "86," which has been known since the 1920s. But I can't believe they haven't contributed to 86's longevity. Oh, sorry, have to go. Our word-origin staff is rolling up their sleeves to take the insult out into the parking lot. Don't worry. For such a touchy group, they sure are easy to sucker punch.


I just read your current issue while visiting San Diego, and there were some comments regarding the origin of the slang term "86," meaning to discard or get rid of something. I didn't see the original article, so forgive me if this was already mentioned. I recently visited New York City, and the small, colorful bar Chumley's in Greenwich Village also claims to have originated this term. Their address is 86 Bedford Street. Supposedly, during Prohibition, when they were a speakeasy and were raided by the police, the workers would sometimes yell out "86!" meaning to leave the bar via the 86 Bedford Street entrance. (There are about three entrances to the bar, plus a hidden exit.)

-- Tom Rombouts, Torrance

Aw, Tom, New Yorkers think they invented everything. Cute story, though. Just the kind of tidbit a "colorful" spot like Chumley's would lay on out-of-towners, along with the heavily salted peanuts. Maybe it's not so far-fetched, when you consider that the "official" explanation for 86 does involve short-order cooks and bartenders. If 86 was already in use at Chumley's, it might have made a handy substitute for "Cheese it! The cops!" But an orderly egress through the 86 Bedford door is unlikely. Once again, it sounds like coincidence. Thanks for the contribution. We'll add it to the list of speculations about the origin of "86," though I'm about 85 1/2 on the whole subject at this point.

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