White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed rumors that she was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant on Friday evening. “Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left,” Sanders tweeted on Saturday. “Her actions say far more about her than about me.”
In a widely shared tweet about the incident, Brennan Gilmore, director of the environmental group Clean Virginia, posted what appears to be a note left by the restaurant’s staff for the morning manager, reading: “86—Sara Huckabee Sanders.”
In the lingo of restaurants and bars, eighty-six is an old bit of coded slang that can mean that an item on the menu isn’t available—or, as is evidently the case here, that a customer should be removed from the premises. (It’s common lingo among those who tend bar, a profession that entails inconspicuously showing the door to patrons who have had too much to drink.) It has also been turned into a verb, meaning “eject” or “get rid of”: The note seems to suggest that the restaurant wanted to eighty-six Sanders.
Where did this unusual use of the number come from in the first place? As I discussed in an episode of the podcast Lexicon Valley, there are numerous theories about the origins of the eighty-six slang, but most of the theories lack any evidence to back them up. The first known appearance in print, discovered by word sleuth Barry Popik, is in “On Broadway,” the widely syndicated column by New York’s premier gossip-monger Walter Winchell. In the column that appeared on May 24, 1933 (as published in the Akron Beacon Journal), Winchell wrote:
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.
Winchell went on to give more examples of the numerical code used by servers at soda fountains, including eighty-one meaning “a glass of water,” and thirteen meaning “one of the big bosses is drifting around.”
Three years later, Harold W. Bentley, a Columbia University professor, confirmed the soda-counter usage of eighty-six in an article in the journal American Speech, “Linguistic Concoctions of the Soda Jerker.” Bentley sent his students out to drug-store soda counters, hash houses, and other eateries around New York, collecting about 500 items in all, including some rather elaborate expressions: Noah’s boy with Murphy carrying a wreath was the code for “ham and potato and cabbage.” Eighty-six could be found alongside many other code numbers in the eighties and nineties:
EIGHTY-ONE. Glass of water; also root beer.
EIGHTY-TWO. Two glasses of water.
EIGHTY-SIX. Item on the menu not on hand.
EIGHTY-SEVEN AND A HALF. Girl at table with legs conspicuously crossed or otherwise attractive.
NINETY-FIVE. Customer walking out without paying.
NINETY-EIGHT. Assistant soda man; also the manager.
NINETY-NINE. Head soda man.
The code could vary from one establishment to the next: In a 1938 article about soda counters in the Los Angeles Times, 87, not 86, is the signal given for “we’ve run out of that item on the menu.”
While the other numbers in the arbitrary soda-counter code are long forgotten, eighty-six entered wider usage and developed new meanings—attached to people, not just menu items. In the restaurant industry, eighty-six was soon applied to customers who were considered objectionable for some reason, worthy of removal like an item from the menu. The March 27, 1936, issue of The Gateway, the newspaper of the University of Nebraska–Omaha, explained:
Girls, if you walk into the drug store and the good-looking guy behind the fountain yells out “PINEAPPLE,” you may feel flattered, as that means, in good English, that he thinks you are a wow, a honey, and a cute little trick.
But, if he hollers “EIGHTY-SIX,” he doesn’t like your type.
And in a 1942 crime story published in The Washington Post, charmingly titled “Murder With Your Malted,” one character explains how eighty-six could make the metaphorical leap to people: “‘The tuna-fish salad is 86’ means there isn’t any more. And if you say a guy is 86, that means he’s fired or all washed up or something like that.”
As eighty-six grew in popularity (spawning the verb form by the late 1940s), the rest of the soda-counter code faded from memory, and amateur etymologists came up with their own conjectures for where the number came from. Several of the explanations involve New York City landmarks (even though Winchell first presented it as coming from Hollywood). One story relates to the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931. The elevator let off people at the observation deck on the 86th floor, so supposedly the elevator operator shouting “86, all out!” was enough to spawn the slang.
A bar in Greenwich Village, Chumley’s on 86 Bedford St., also lays claim to the expression. When it was a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the story goes, Chumley’s would get raided by the police who would come in from a side entrance. Customers would be tipped off to get out the front door with the yell of “86!” In another telling, if someone got too drunk, he would be forcibly ejected out the front entrance and would be left on the sidewalk looking up at the building’s street number.
Many other fanciful etymologies have been suggested over the years to explain the mysterious number, but all of the speculation masks the likeliest origin, that it is simply a vestige of the arbitrary codes shouted out by soda clerks. And eighty-six has persisted thanks to the service industry’s continuing need to share signals—whether it has to do with removing menu items or removing customers.