FW: eighty-six or 86; short-order cookery language

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Jul 1 15:29:23 UTC 2007

At 9:35 AM -0500 7/1/07, Cohen, Gerald Leonard wrote:
>I'm presently away from my reference books, but IIRC there's an
>explanation given in an American Speech article which derives this
>86 from the number of stories in the Empire State building. I know
>the number of stories is now considered to be 102, but somehow it
>was once considered to be 86. (Maybe the very top of the building
>has something to do with the discrepancy.)

The open observation deck was on the 86th floor (still is, for all I
know), so effectively that was the top for purposes of viewing the
city at one's leisure, for looking through those binocular machines
that one put a nickel into (or was it a dime?  memory fails), and
from which one pondered whether it was really possible to kill
someone by dropping a penny on their head.  (Young whippersnappers we
were.)  We all knew there were 102 stories, but the 86th floor was
the relevant top for most purposes.

I have no idea whether this relates at all to the restaurant code.


>    Anyway,the idea was that you get to 86 (stories), and then
>there's no more.  Hence, 86 as used in restaurant lingo to mean "no
>more (of a given food)."
>Gerald Cohen
>From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Benjamin Zimmer
>Sent: Sat 6/30/2007 4:18 PM
>Subject: Re: FW: eighty-six or 86; short-order cookery language
>On 6/30/07, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
>>  Is it true that "86" began life as rhyming slang for "nix" or for "86
>>  (=) nix, nix," as I actually saw it put, somewhere or other, many
>>  years ago.
>It's a popular theory, but I tend to doubt it. We know (thanks to
>Barry) that the "86" code has been around since at least 1933, but the
>rhyming-slang explanation shows up much later. (Alan Dundes traces the
>etymology to Wentworth & Flexner 1967 -- I haven't seen it earlier
>than that.) The "86" code shows up on lists of many seemingly
>arbitrary numbers in sources from the '30s, so why should "86" be the
>only one with a nonarbitrary origin? Further casting the "nix" theory
>into doubt is that "87" rather than "86" shows up with the meaning
>'out of an item on the menu' in at least one early source:
>Los Angeles Times, Jan 9, 1938, p. J2
>Have you ever heard the soda clerks shouting numbers to each other? Here
>are a few which we recently persuaded a nimble-fingered mixer to translate
>for us:
>"81" -- water for the customer.
>"61" -- cup of coffee.
>"87" -- we've run out of that item on the menu.
>"37" -- take special pains for this customer.
>"Watch the pump" -- the girl you're serving has pretty eyes.
>"Stretch it" -- give this man a big one; he looks hungry.
>"87 1/2" -- the girl in the corner has pretty legs.
>More discussion in this 2005 thread:
>--Ben Zimmer
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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