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American Speech 76.4 (2001) 437-440
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An Uplifting Origin of 86
Alan Dundes, University of California, Berkeley
In the popular television series Get Smart (1965-70), the bumbling hero Maxwell Smart, played by actor Don Adams, was known in part by his number, namely, as Agent 86. Presumably, the numerical designation was meant to parody Agent 007, the hero of the James Bond spy movies. But why Agent 86? Wouldn't virtually any number have served the same purpose? The answer lies in the slang meaning of 86.
Reported in most late-twentieth-century American slang dictionaries, eighty-six is listed as a term used initially in restaurants and bars. There appear to be two different meanings of the term (Lighter 1994, 700). The first refers to soda fountains or restaurant lingo, where the term meant that a particular item was no longer available. Typically cooks in the kitchen would place an 86 on a blackboard next to an entree to signal the wait staff that they should not accept any more orders for that item. The second meaning has to do with designating an unwelcome customer, especially in bars. In this second usage, the term typically referred to ejecting a customer, possible because he was a problem of some kind--either he was on the verge of becoming drunk (and disorderly) or, perhaps, his credit was deemed not sufficient to pay the bill. [End Page 438]
It is not absolutely certain when eighty-six first appeared in the American folk lexicon. Gene Fowler's (1944) biography of actor John Barrymore, Good Night, Sweet Prince, contains a scene set "in a speakeasy off Times Square late on a spring day in 1925." Barrymore was supposedly known as an eighty-six, which, Fowler explains, "in the patois of western dispensers, means 'Don't serve him'" (227). This noun evidently referred to an unwelcome customer at a bar. There is no suggestion, however, that it connoted any act of forcible ejection of that unwelcome customer. The same goes for a somewhat puzzling passing reference in a 1926 play Burlesque. In the play, a waiter brings some soda water to the principal male character, Skid, and as the waiter opens the bottles, he says, "If you need any Scotch or gin, sir. . . . My number is Eighty-Six." Skid pays the waiter and tells him to keep the change. The waiter responds, "Thank you, sir. Thank you very much, and my number is . . ." whereupon Skid interrupts, "Yeah, Eighty-Six, I know." After the waiter leaves, Skid takes a large flask containing Scotch from his pocket (Watters and Hopkins 1935, 47-48). It is by no means clear why the waiter's number is Eighty-Six, but it does not seem to refer to being out of liquor. Quite the contrary. Perhaps it simply alludes to a standard numerical designation for alcohol content; that is, the Scotch that the waiter was prepared to provide was 86 proof, or 43% alcohol.
A common semantic nucleus of both the restaurant and bar usages is the notion of 'out'. In the restaurant context, the establishment is indicating to its employees that with respect to a given menu item, it was 'out of it'. In the second, a bar patron was to be 'thrown out' as undesirable. Beyond the contexts of restaurants and bars, eighty-six functions as a verb meaning 'get rid of' someone or something (cf. Lighter 1994, 701; Spears 1997, 117). Representative illustrations include a line in the 1972 movie The Candidate when Robert Redford's character is told by a media adviser, "O.K., now, for starters, we got to cut your hair and eighty-six the sideburns," and a note in Sports Illustrated in 1991 titled "Boo-Boo by the Bay: The 49ers Should Eighty-Six Their New Logo" (Fimrite 1991). The presence of this piece of folk speech in Get Smart is figurative, inasmuch as Maxwell Smart's actions tend to suggest that for the greater portion of each episode he is "out of it," an unwitting hero whose success is more often than not unintentional...