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AWADmail Issue 90July 10, 2002
A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages
From: Anu Garg (garg AT wordsmith.org)
Many readers shared their favorite stories about the origin of the term eighty-six. We don't yet have a definitive proof to confirm a single theory. However, the most popular one, Chumley's bar at 86 Bedford St., is not the right one based on the evidence that the term was in existence before the bar came into being. Here are some selections.
I was told by a bartender friend that the derivation of "eight-six'd" comes
from the Old West. Alcohol was once allowed to be 100 proof in strength, and
when a regular was known to get disorderly, he was served with spirits of a
slightly lower 86 proof. Hence he was "86'd."
New Yorkers know a different origin for this phrase. There's a
bar/restaurant called Chumley's, at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village.
The bar has a formidable history as a literary
hangout, but more importantly, as a speakeasy. The place is known for having
no identifying markings on the door, and at least four or five hidden
passageways that led to exits, some into adjacent apartment buildings. To
"86-it" meant to simply vanish from a "dining" establishment. It's not hard
to imagine how that evolved to mean "take a special off the menu", or any of
the other interpretations it's given today.
You missed the ideogram here. I think the origin of the phrase comes from
the way the numbers look. The 8 is kicking the 6 out of a bar.
I have heard that the origin of this term "eighty-sixed" was referring to
the standard height of a door frame. In other words to be thrown out the
door, you are 86'ed.
The term 86 or 86'd has its origins in NYC, where people committed suicide
by jumping from the observation deck of The Empire State Building on the
86th floor before a safety fence was installed.
I heard this term came from a shaving powder (Old Eighty-six) from the
wild west days. Just a pinch in the rambunctious cowboy's drink would
have him heading for the outhouse and out of the saloon.
As an apprentice filmmaker I learned to use transparent light filters to
change the quality or colour of the image that I was filming. These filters
are categorized by number, the highest number being an 85 filter. The
mythical 86 filter would be totally opaque, not letting through any light at
all. Hence, I learned, the origin of the verb 86, to get rid of something in
the way an 86 filter would completely delete any image in front of the camera
from striking the film.
While working as a waitress, I was told that "86" referred to the number of
ladles it took to empty an army pot of soup. After 86 servings, the pot was
The United States military has what is called the Uniform Code of Military
Justice. Article 86 of the UCMJ is Absence Without Leave. (commonly called
I heard that this expression originated in New York City back in the days
when there was a saloon on every street corner and elevated trains ran along
the lengths of the major avenues. One of the lines terminated at 86th Street,
at which point the conductors would eject the drunks who had fallen asleep
on the train. Sometimes the drunks were belligerent. The conductors took
to referring to them as "86's."
It is a holdover from journalism days when news was delivered over the
teletype. To expedite the process, sometimes coded numbers were sent for
common phrases and actions. For example, when a story was complete, the
number "30" was sent. To this day, copy editors in newspapers still use
the number 30 at the bottom center of the last page of a story. Also, (I've
been told), when an item was sent in error or to be discarded, the number
"86" was used.
I had thought that this term had been derived from military shorthand and
referred to the phone dial (when it had letters on it). The T for Throw is on
the 8 key and the O for Out is on the 6 key - hence something tossed is 86'd.
I was always under the impression that the expression was nautical. Something
like "86 leagues or feet", with the idea that putting something that deep
down in the ocean was discarding it.
So far my working hypothesis was, that maybe it started as a misunderstanding
and derives from "deep six" as in buried six feet under ground, i.e. dead.
I believe this originated during the Korean war. "Eighty-six" refers to the
jet fighter North American F-86 Saber. Whenever an F-86 shot down a airplane
during a dogfight it had been "eighty-sixed".
I read several years ago that "86" refers to the standard depth of a grave in
the U.S.: 7 feet, 2 inches; thus to "eighty-six" something is to "bury it".
Folk lore has it that local code #86 in New York makes it illegal for bar
keepers to serve drunken patrons. The bartender says to such a patron,
"You're eighty sixed", and thus we get this phrase.
I am a career restaurant worker and the story I heard about the origin of the
term "86'd" started with the 86th precinct of the NY police dept. It seems
that when officers in other precincts fell out of favor with their superiors
the threat of being sent to the rough and overworked 86th was enough to make
them tow the line. It was in conversation at the local restaurant among the
officers that the wait staff began to pick it up and cycled to other
restaurants and other industries.
In the electrical industry devices have numbers -- a 27 is an undervoltage
relay, 43 is a selector switch, etc. -- and an 86 is a trip and lockout
device. An 86 operation means the affected piece of equipment is "locked
I recall a Johnny Hart B.C. comic strip a few years back that made an
interesting observation on the name of the "abortion pill" RU-486. The folks
at Roussel Uclef (the "RU") will tell you that the name/number was just one
more in a series of compounds, etc. Mr. Hart however dissected "RU-486" into
a darkly appropriate phrase: "Are you for 'eighty-sixing' the kid?"
From: Daniel Utevsky (daniel.utevskyATcomcast.net)
Don't forget the biggest numeric term of all - 9/11.
See, for example, yesterday's Doonesbury cartoon.
From: Bruce Sloane (sloaneATcrosslink.net)
Of course the latest numerical term to become a word is 9/11. I think that 20 years from now (after the term has softened and lost some of its current sharp emotional impact) it will become generic to indicate a mishap or disaster. ("That chem final was a 9-11 for me.")
From: Don H. Meredith (dmeredithATcompusmart.ab.ca)
Interesting about the $64 quiz show, which was before my time. However, I do remember the very popular TV show in the U.S. during the 1950s, The $64,000 Question, which was based on the radio show. As I remember the show, the first question was the $64 dollar one, and the contestants then worked their way up to the top prize, $64,000 -- a lot of money in those days.
I've often heard people say "that's the $64 question," thinking that they really meant "$64,000" question; but now I understand why they said what they did.
From: Dale Roberts (drobertsATcasarino.com)
One slang term you might consider this week is the word "bagel" used as a verb. In sports and other games, when one player or team defeats the other without the other scoring a single point, they are said to have "bageled" their opponent. This is due to the bagel's resemblance to a zero. I have often wondered why "bagel" became the accepted term for this, when one would think any everyday object resembling a zero would be equally applicable. Donut? Cheerio? Froot Loop?
From: Holly Ong (hongATlevi.com)
The number 501 to many people mean Levi's(R) jeans. It's also one of the few numbers that have a trademark.
From: John F. Beerman (bdbeermanATaol.com)
Unfortunately, (but inevitably) we as often hear about people doing a 360 degree turnaround. Perhaps they are so confused that they are simply going around in circles. Incidentally, speaking of 360 degrees, one of the cleverer brand names in the aerospace business, was dreamed up during the 1960s. IBM had recently named its revolutionary new 360 computer system based on the idea that it was to be "all things for all people". When they soon after marketed an airborne version of the same computer architecture, as it was intended to go into the air, that is, the third dimension, they created the perfect name. They nicknamed it the 4-Pi computer, based on the mathematical fact that there are 4 x Pi Steradians (the unit of solid angles in a 3-dimensional volume) in a sphere.
From: Mimi (djknightATairmail.net)
The kids also say "411" if they give you the low down on something as in, "Oh really. You think so? Well, here's the 411 on what's really going on." Gotta' love it!
From: Sonja Dalglish (dalglishATgvtc.com)
Thinking about numbers in speech, what about the CB radio operators: 10/4 good buddy, meaning an acknowledgment of the message, and perhaps a sign off (over and out).
I believe that "30" was the way that reporters used to say 'the end' on their writings. It may have also been used by telegraphers as the ending of a message.
From: Marty Lichtman (lichtmanATstanford.edu)
I recall an advertisement for the soundtrack to the movie "Johnny Mnemonic" which used "404". It warned those who might not buy the soundtrack: "Don't get caught in the 404." I suppose they meant that one would be "missing" out on something by not buying the record.
From: David Henry (dh56ATmts.net)
A variation on 404 is 'gone to Atlanta'. Think area code.
From: Sean McLellan (sean.mclellanATscisys.co.uk)
I just thought that you'd be interested to know that here in the UK I've heard '101' or 'room 101' used in sentences to refer to somebody's deepest fears or dislikes. This comes from room 101 in George Orwell's '1984' where people were tortured with their deepest fears. There's even a show on tv 'Room 101' where celebrities describe pet hates and fears to the host and the audience who then decide whether it can be consigned to room 101 or not.
From: Dushyant (indi_pendentATrediffmail.com)
One more number which has made it to a select group is 73's. This is generally the parting "bye" flung out by HAM radio operators but other variations may exist. I have early remembrances of this word as both my mom and dad are long-time HAMs. Usually whole nights were spent just HAMing around. So I always waited for the 73's to be said before going to sleep.
From: Hirak Parikh (nonsufficitorbisATyahoo.com)
Trivia about the eponymous novel: Heller originally wanted to name his dilemma Catch-18, but a book by Leon Uris called Mila 18, historical fiction about the Warsaw ghetto uprising during WWII, had just been published, and the publishers were afraid there would be confusion. (Mila 18 was a street address.)
From: Anoop Bhat (soundmeisterATyahoo.com)
Funny how numbers can evoke so much passion! I have clients from Nigeria who refuse to stay on the 4th floor of hotels, fearing they may be allocated 419. 419, of course, being synonymous with the typically Nigerian scam of somebody introducing himself as the lawyer/assistant to a deposed dictator requesting to transfer millions of illegal dollars into your account for a fee.
Also odd how 419 is oh so close to the Hindi 420 ("chaar sau bees"), derived from Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code which covers cheating. So a 420 is a cheat/petty criminal/ your basic lowlife!
From: Mary L. Wyatt (mlwyattATumd.umich.edu)
You wrote: "I wonder if we have any AWAD reader with age in triple digits."
Any adolescent will confirm this for you: My children like to point out that they are not 11 and 13, but 11.5 and 13.5. Does that count for triple digits?
From: Jessica Fischer (kenATactcom.co.il)
I have a 94+ year-old friend who delights in many of the gems I print out for her from Wordsmith. She has macular degeneration so I print everything BIG and BOLD for her! Many thanks for keeping her so interested in the English language!
If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. -George Orwell, writer (1903-1950)