Paint it Black on Friday

Black Friday today signals the start of a shopping season, but history has blackened many a Friday

THIS YEAR the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States will be celebrated on November 24th and will be followed the next day by perhaps the most mercantile day on the calendar: Black Friday. For shoppers, this marks the beginning of the orgy of bargain-hunting that culminates at Christmas. Black Friday gets its ominous-sounding name from the fact that, as of this day, many stores and companies that were previously “in the red” are able to undergo a virtual transubstantiation in which they morph to “in the black.”

These colour designations come from the world of accounting, where red ink is used in a ledger to designate a loss and black ink to register a profit. One would think that these two terms would have received lexicographic recognition concurrently; however, “in the red” is first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1907, while “in the black” did not make its debut until 1923.

To my knowledge, from a linguistic perspective Black Friday marks the only instance of a positive connotation of the adjectival use of “black” in the English language. Obviously, most uses are neutral and refer only to the colour of various objects. However, in its many descriptions of the word black as an adjective, the OED displays the following meanings: “gloomy,” “dirty,” “burned,” “evil” and “hateful.” To “look black” means “to frown,” and black is used as an intensifier in several expressions that carry a sense of severity, such as the terms “black afraid” or “black angry.”

The first OED citation of Black Friday in a commercial sense dates from 1961, when we read in the December 18th edition of Publication News in New York that “for downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. … In Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.”

The OED’s next citation is from The New York Times on November 21, 1975: “Philadelphia police and bus drivers call it ‘Black Friday’ — that day each year between Thanksgiving Day and the Army-Navy game. It is the busiest shopping and traffic day of the year in the Bicentennial city.”

So, as we can see from the two citations, there is a clear Philadelphia provenance to the expression. In addition, it seems that, for some people, the blackness attached to Friday was a humorous reference to the congestion and excessive traffic caused in downtown Philadelphia by the multitudinous shoppers.

The OED does show an even earlier citation for Black Friday that ties it to the Thanksgiving season; it has nothing to do with shopping, but rather the sense of blackness refers to the great degree of absenteeism found in factories following Thanksgiving. The November 1951 edition of Factory Management & Maintenance reported that “‘Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis’ is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. … When you decide you want to sweeten up the holiday kitty, pick Black Friday to add to the list. … Friday after Thanksgiving is the company’s seventh paid holiday.”

The OED gives several other examples of non-Thanksgiving-related Black Fridays, none of which represent profit. The term was first used in 1610 in English schools and referred to any Friday in which a general examination was administered as Black Friday. (From this, we learn that students have been “testaphobic” for over 400 years.)

The term was next used to describe December 6, 1745, the date on which it was announced that Charles Edward Stuart, aka the Young Pretender, had landed in London. History is undecided as to whether Charles’s Jacobite rebellion — with its goal of restoring his family to the throne of Great Britain — caused any great panic, but that didn’t prevent this particular Black Friday from receiving significant lexicographic recognition.

The other designation of Black Friday comes from the world of finance and occurs almost concurrently in Great Britain and the United States, and at a date much earlier than one would suppose. The first occurred on May 11, 1866, when commercial panic followed the collapse of the London banking house Overend, Gurney & Co. Then, on September 24, 1869, “Black Friday” was used to refer to the financial panic on Wall Street that was precipitated by the introduction of a large amount of government gold into the market, in order to make it harder for anyone to corner the gold market.

I suspect other Black Fridays will achieve lexicographic recognition in future. In fact, following the Brexit vote on June 23rd I espied these two headlines: from The Independent, “Brexit: Black Friday For Financial Markets Sparked By EU Vote,” and from CNN Money, “Britain’s Black Friday Is Here. Now What?”

Howard Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit was published in May by Ronsdale Press.