Research Day: Portable Signs and Dem Bones, Dem Bones

What’s the deal with all the people standing on street corners holding “24 Fitness” signs? I don’t know how things are in your hometown but, in the not-to-distant past, the corners of every major intersection of Seattle were populated by people holding cardboard signs signs readings “STUCK IN SEATTLE AND AS IMPROBABLE AS IT SOUNDS I ONLY NEED $1.47 MORE TO BUY A BUS TICKET!!” Apparently all those folks managed to get back to Gerbil Junction, Iowa, though, because many of them are now gone, replace by crowds of people dancing around and waving at cars while wearing both a Walkman and a Sandwich Board reading “CIRCUIT CITY NEXT RIGHT ->” Where did all these people come from? Did someone figure out a loophole in signage laws or something, and now everyone is rushing to exploit it?

Actually, “portable signs” are legal not because of a loophole in the law, but because of the law itself — it’s just that the law wasn’t settled until a a few years ago. Dennis Ballen, the owner of a store called Blazing Bagels in Redmond (a Seattle suburb and home to Microsoft) had been using these “portable signs” for years, while the city had long been trying to ban them. But Redmond was selective in its sign laws, allowing for political and real estate signs while trying to 86 the rest. So Ballen joined forces with the The Institute for Justice and took the city to court.

In January of 2004, the Seattle federal court ruled in favor of Ballen, stating that Redmond’s law “creates content-based exceptions for certain commercial speech that has no material relationship to the safety and aesthetic goals” and declaring it unconstitutional [pdf of ruling]. The finding was upheld later that same year.

With their legality established, guys wearing “Mattress Depot” signs and waving madly at passing cars have begun to appear all over our state. And maybe your state, too. If so, you have us to thank.

What’s the origin of the phrase “no bones about it?” Is it related to the phrase “to pick a bone?”: A couple of Internet sites take a stab at deducing the history of the phrase “make no bones about it,” and they all seem to be in agreement on two points: (a) the term is so ancient that determining its etymology is well nigh impossible, but (b) the best guess is that it comes from Ye Olde Olden Dayes, when soups would occasionally contain tiny bones and the more casual connoisseur would either swallow them down or set them aside without making a fuss. The other hypothesis often mentioned is that the phrase might allude to gambling, where some players make a big deal out of “throwing the bones” while others just quietly go about their business of losing money. (Curiously, every site I encountered while researching his phrase [this one, this one, and this one] all list the same theories in the same order, which means that they are probably all copying one another — just as I am doing now.)

As for “pick a bone” (and the related phrase, “bone of contention”), the consensus is that this too comes from meal bones, and the quarrel that breaks out amongst dogs when one is thrown to them.

From the comments: “I’d like to know what the origin of using ’86’ as a verb is.” According to Merriam-Webster, the term was first used by restaurant workers as a code phrase meaning “we’re out of something,” and was chosen because it rhymed with the word “nix.” A full account of the phrase is available here.

18 thoughts on “Research Day: Portable Signs and Dem Bones, Dem Bones

  1. I’d like to know what the origin of using ’86’ as a verb is (while trying to 86 the rest.)

    I’m not from the US and I’ve never heard it before, is it a police code?

  2. The Oxford English Dictionary is so wonderful for etymology fetishists, as it lists the first known examples of each usage or meaning of a word. Here you go:

    b. bones (fig.): something relished.
    1884 TUPPER Heart vii. 61

  3. I’ve been working in foodservice for most of my adult life. The term “86” to mean we are out of something is still used everywhere that I’ve worked. It is my understanding that its origin came from the famed Delmonicos Restaurant in NYC. Still the oldest continually operated restaurant in the City (since 1827) their signature sirloin steak was so highly sought after that they would run out of steaks every night. That steak was entree #86 on the menu. Which is why we 86 anything we run out of today.

    Couldn’t find any references to it online but I have been told the same story by a number of very knowledgable “foodies” I have known.

  4. Here in the upscale, elitist planned community in Florida where I live, it was decided that streetside signs promoting the local businesses looked too tacky, as if having a Quizno’s logo within view of daily commuters was too plebeian. So, in order to stay afloat, the businesses have had to adopt other means of promotion, such as sticking fliers under our windshields at the supermarket, and – you guessed it – having their staff manning the sidewalk with sandwich boards, looking sweaty and miserable in the scalding sun as they glare at passing drivers in their air-conditioned cars.

    Yup, nothing tacky about that.

  5. Hey . . . I live in Gerbil Junction, IA. I was wondering where everyone went. I think they must have only made it as far as Kansas, because they’re not home yet.

    Seriously though, the only people who use those stupid signs around here are the ones showing aborted foetuses to prove abortion is icky (no, really) and one tax prep outfit does it in march every year (dressed up as the statue of liberty, Lincoln or Uncle Sam no less . . . doesn’t make me feel safe about them managing my money).

  6. “one tax prep outfit does it in march every year (dressed up as the statue of liberty, Lincoln or Uncle Sam no less . . . doesn’t make me feel safe about them managing my money)”

    That would be the Liberty Tax folks. They stake out the corners of 60th and 15th here in beautiful Ballard every tax season. The cool thing is that when you’re on your bicycle waiting at the light to cross 15th there, you can generally yell up and ask them to hit the button for the “Walk” light for you. Otherwise you have to ride up on the sidewalk and do it yourself, as the road sensors don’t pick up bicycles (despite what the City of Seattle claims).

  7. The slogan of our high school graduating class was “86 It!” (yes in 1986. I’m old), which some do-gooder teacher had connected with getting rid of drugs. So for our homecoming float, a bunch of us painted our faces in school colors and repeatedly threw giant hypodermic needles and oversized pill bottles into trashcans while waving to the crowds. We didn’t really know what “86 It” meant, but fortunately we too drunk to care.

  8. Another 86 theory for you:

    Once when I was at a restaurant, the chef called out from the kitchen to 86 something and all the waitstaff called back in unison, “86 the WhateverItWas.” My dad asked the waitress what it meant, and that particular restaurant’s explanation is that a grave is eight feet long and six feet under, so to “86” something is essentially to declare it dead.

  9. I checked 86 on Wikipedia and it clearly states that 86 means the integer between 85 and 87. And Wikipedia is nevar wrong.

  10. Nothing like looking up stuff on the internet when you’re bored. One day, when I was stuck at work with nothing to do, I decided to research into whether or not Vincent Price was gay. Found out he wasn’t but his daughter was, and he took it really well. I’m richer for the experience.

    And I know what you mean about websites just copying information from eachother. I tried to look up “You’re so ugly” jokes to see if any of them could actually be funny, but all I could pull up was websites that had stolen from eachother. And none of them were funny.

  11. I’m not sure why, but whenever I see the kid on the sidewalk frantically waving the Little Ceasar’s pizza sign while I am commuting home from work, I have the overwhelming urge to give him the finger. Most signs you can casually ignore, but that kid- bebopping along to whatever is on his headphones is impossible to not notice. It’s advertising’s way to shout “HEY! HEY! YO! OVER HERE!”

  12. 86 – I remember seeing something about Prohibition on the History Channel a few years ago…about a speakeasy that got shut down and was somehow associated with the number 86. The show indicated that this was the origin of the expression.

    Hold on, there must be something online somewhere – Ah!

    From Wikipedia:

    Another explanation is that Chumley’s, a famous 1900’s New York speakeasy, was located at 86 Bedford St. During Prohibition, an entrance through an interior adjoining courtyard was used, as it provided privacy and discretion for customers. As was a New York tradition, the cops were on the payroll of the bar and would give a ring to the bar that they were coming for a raid. The bartender would then give the command “86 everybody!”, which meant that everyone should hightail it out the 86 Bedford entrance because the cops were coming in through the courtyard door.

    Of course, there are as many sites claiming this is bunk as the other theories…but it makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard!

    Oh, and the Liberty Taxers are out in force every year here in Suburbia, too. They always look much too happy to be standing there breathing in the exhaust fumes.

  13. I LOVE the people holding up signs around Redmond! There is one lady that dances the whole time she is holding her sign and I sometimes wish I could bring the passion and enjoyment that she has for her job to my job.

  14. Speaking of Seattle street corners…I was visitng this weekend and the statue in Fremont of the people waiting for the bus is gone. Where did they all go? And don’t say that the bus finally came…

  15. The way I heard it, the verb “86” comes from old rhyming slang — and in the US, it may be the only relic of that weird phenomenon. Supposedly, it’s a rhyme for “nix”, which of course means to get rid of something. (Strange that we still say “86”, and sometimes “Ix-nay”, but we don’t really say “nix” anymore.)

    In the third Austin Powers movie, Austin and his father recall a dirty story, but they self-censor by speaking “more English” — i.e., British slang. One of them replaces “stairs” with “apples and pears.” Same thing, but I don’t really get the appeal of the rhymey talk.

    Better story: I once saw a guy in a portable-sign suit who had to perform his gig right across a two-lane street from a dead skunk. Ouch.

  16. This post reminds me that I need to investigate the legality of children and teenagers standing at street-corners, yelling “Car wash! Car wash!” all through the summer days. Where does free speech end and noise pollution begin?

  17. I’ve resisted Google as an answer for everything on the strength of conundrums like these, thanks to the “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” sitting on my desk. The only hazard is that once you start reading it, it is hard to stop. The only ‘net implementation is at Bartleby’s, and it ain’t great.

    “To have a bone to pick” derives from the behavior of dogs in a kennel when you toss them a bone. “To make no bones” is suggested as a reference to dice, advice not to try to coax the dice into your favor. All according to Brewer’s. Enjoyable always, even if possibly wrong.

  18. Steve Sailer’s theory is that human directionals are a result of expensive property combined with cheap labor which, being a recent phenomenon, explains why you only started seeing it in the last decade. And why you probably don’t see as much of it in places like Gerbil Junction or Provo as you do in Redmond or Santa Monica.

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