Paint it Black on Friday
This year Thanksgiving 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 sale hunting that culminates at Christmas. Black Friday gets its designation from the fact that as of this day many stores and companies that previously were “in the red” are able to undergo a virtual transubstantiation where they morph “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 is used 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 OED in 1907 while “In the black” makes its debut only in 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 with a commercial sense dates from 1961 when we read in the Dec 18th edition of Publication News in New York, “For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day… In Philadelphia, it beca[H1] me 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 and also one that relates to the traffic in that city caused by the multitudinous shoppers. It also seems that for some people the blackness attached to Friday represented a humorous reference to the congestion caused in downtown Philadelphia.
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 “’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 shows several other examples of non-Thanksgiving-related Black Fridays and unsurprisingly none of them are particularly profitable. The first time the designation was used was in 1610 and it didn’t refer to a specific Friday but was used in English schools to refer to any Friday in which a general examination was administered. From this, we know that students have been “testaphobic” for over 400 years. The next time the designation was used was to mark December 6, 1745, when the landing of Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a “the Young Pretender” was announced in London. This date is marked in infamy as it signifies the Young Pretender’s leading an insurrection to restore his family to the throne of Great Britain. History is undecided whether this rebellion caused any great panic but this didn’t prevent this particular Black Friday from receiving extensive lexicographic recognition. The other designation of Black Friday comes from the world of finance and occurs almost concurrently in Great Britain and the USA and at a date much earlier than one would suppose. The first one occurred on May 11, 1866 when a commercial panic followed the collapse of the London banking house Overend, Gurney & Co. Then on Sept 24, 1869 the term was used to refer to the financial panic on Wall Street that was precipitated by the introduction of a large amount of governmental gold into the financial market, with the aim of making it harder for anyone to corner the gold market.
I suspect other Black Fridays will achieve lexicographic recognition in the future. In fact, following the Brexit vote on Thursday, June 23rd, I espied these two headlines: The Independent- Brexit: Black Friday For Financial Markets Sparked By EU Vote and CNN Money: Britain’s Black Friday Is Here. Now What?
Richler’s latest book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit was published by Ronsdale Press in May 2016