Black Friday

Definition: Noun. The day after Thanksgiving that initiates the holiday shopping season.

Origin: Americans love their traditions, and what better tradition to burn off all the calories from an overindulgent, cholesterol-rich turkey feast and escape annoying relatives than the annual trip to the mall in the early morning hours of Black Friday, lining up in front of storefronts like obsessed groupies before a rock concert, hoping to catch a glimpse of the band. While the intrepid shopper stands dutifully in line, shivering in the bone-chilling, early morning cold and clutching a handful of coupons, a store invasion plan, and the hope of snagging a doorbuster deal, she just might wonder “why exactly is the start of a festive holiday shopping season — festooned in green, red, and gold — called ‘Black Friday’ that evokes some sort of morbid, dreary day from Medieval history?”

First, it is important to distinguish the historical term Black Friday from the modern term. Historically, Black Friday is another name for Good Friday, the Christian holiday commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. On that day — also known as Holy Friday, Great Friday, or Easter Friday — clergymen wore dark vestments. In Great Britain, Black Friday was the day (May 11, 1866) when a banking house — Overend, Gurney, & Co.– failed creating a panic in the financial market. The next Black Friday occurred  on April 15, 1921 when certain trade unions betrayed miners during a labor strike. In America, Black Friday occurred on September 24, 1869, a day of financial panic in the stock market, triggered by a large infusion of government gold that was supposed to make it more difficult to corner the gold market. The term “black” was not limited to Fridays, of course. There was Black Tuesday, the day (October, 29, 1929) when the stock market crashed, wiping out billions of dollars of wealth, ushering in the Great Depression (c. 1929-1940). About 50 years later, there was Black Monday (October 19, 1987) when the Dow Jones fell 22% wiping out billions in wealth.

The modern term “Black Friday”  was coined by the men in blue — police officers (as opposed to the Men in Black — alien hunters like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones).  The first recorded use was in the Public Relations News, dated December 18, in 1961, introducing the term that Philadelphia police officers used to describe the traffic jams that occurred after Thanksgiving: “Santa has brought Philadelphia stores a present in the form of  one of the biggest shopping weekends in recent history. At the same time, it has again been proven that there is a direct relationship between sales and public relations. For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.”

As you can imagine, merchants were not very excited about the name “Black Friday” for the day that kick starts the holiday shopping season; accordingly, they ran promotions ubegatsing a friendlier name, “Big Friday,” that didn’t get much traction. Somehow, the name “Black Friday” stuck in the minds of newspaper writers and editors for more than two decades. By the 1980s merchants finally realized that the term was inevitable; consequently, they had to find a way to put a different spin on it. With the help of writers who cover the business sector, a new story was born: “Black Friday” was that point in the calendar year when retailers began to turn a profit; when they are no longer “in the red” (losses) but “in the black” (profits). Consumers bought the new story, faster than a door buster deal on a flat screen TV, and the earlier meaning (traffic jams) was soon forgotten, like another pair of knitted gloves from a distant relative.

Over time, Black Friday begat Cyber Monday, the subject for another interesting story.

For further reading:
A Word in Your Shell-Like: 6,000 Curious and Everyday Phrases Explained by Nigel Rees, Collins (2004).
Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press.

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