How NYC's Prohibition May Have Inspired Restaurants' '86' Phrase

While the term "86" may be used in the restaurant biz, it's hardly an obscure bit of diner lingo. Sure, no one, even most diner employees under the age of 80, will have a clue what you mean if you try to order "a mystery in the alley" (We won't force you to click the link to find out: It's just hash). Just about everyone knows what it means to 86 something, though, since in general parlance it means "get rid of ASAP." Restaurants, however, do have a slightly different use for it: When a particular item is sold out, 86 can mean to drop it from the menu as in, "86 the swordfish special." It can also mean getting rid of a troublesome patron, as in "86 that dude that brought his pet tarantula."

What we don't know, however, is the term's exact origin. One theory is that a Prohibition-era NYC speakeasy had the number 86 as its street address. When the police showed up, bartenders would shout "86" and customers would head for one of the hidden exits. The older idiom "23 skidoo" has a similar origin story as it supposedly referred to a different NYC address where men would gather to watch women's skirts blow up — as Cole Porter put it, "In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking." The behavior may not have been illegal, but cops would still come around to tell them to "skidoo."

There are many other possible explanations, though

While the 86 speakeasy skidoo story is fun, it's by no means the only possible origin for the term 86, nor is it necessarily the most plausible. Another explanation that dates back to the 1930s is that Depression-era soup kitchen kettles held 85 cups of soup, meaning that the 86th person in line was going home hungry. Yet another soup story holds that army mess halls could serve 86 cups from one pot, so pots would have to go back to the kitchen (be 86ed) after being emptied. A more sinister explanation is that the depth of a standard grave is 86 inches (14 inches over the proverbial 6 feet under), so anything getting 86ed was essentially being buried. In fact, "86" was actually used as a euphemism for murder as far back as the '50s.

Some 86 stories, however, are more technologically-based. Back in the days when teletype was state-of-the-art communication, 86 meant a news story sent by mistake, while 86 in electronics referred to a trip and lockout mechanism. In fact, if you look down at your phone keypad now, you'll see that 8 and 6 represent the letters T and O, which could be short for "throw out." If you believe in angel numbers, however, 86 has an entirely different meaning. It could indicate that you're on your way to financial fulfillment, so your bank account, at least, may be in no danger of getting 86ed.