With Thanksgiving feasts come Black Friday sales. While many people believe the term Black Friday finds its roots in the sense of black meaning “showing a profit; not showing any losses,” this isn’t actually the case.
Historically, black has been associated with days of economic stress as opposed to days of booming commercial success. The first Black Friday occurred in 1869 after financier Jay Gould and railway businessman James Fisk attempted to corner the gold market, which ultimately resulted in financial panic and the collapse of the market. A little over 60 years later, on October 29, 1929, another stock market crash referred to as Black Tuesday marked the onset of the Great Depression.
Following suit with the earlier “black” days, the true origin of the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday lies in the sense of black meaning “marked by disaster or misfortune.” In the 1950s, factory managers first started referring to the Friday after Thanksgiving as Black Friday because so many of their workers decided to falsely call in sick, thus extending the holiday weekend. About ten years later, Black Friday was used by Philadelphia traffic cops to describe the day after Thanksgiving because they had to work 12-hour shifts in terrible traffic. Soon the term caught on among shoppers and merchants in Philadelphia, and from there it took off nationwide.
The 1980s brought the mythology of Black Friday that’s often heard today. While the phrases in the black and in the red are used in the business world to describe profits and losses, this explanation for one of the busiest shopping days of the year only came about in the 1980s, about 20 years after the phrase Black Friday was in regular use.
Hear directly from a linguist in this 2013 piece on Black Friday from WBUR. And while you’re at it, do you know why the Monday after Thanksgiving is called Cyber Monday?
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