As Thanksgiving approaches every year, we see and hear the commercial expression “Black Friday.”
This johnny-come-lately expression still bothers me when I hear it mentioned on the radio or see it spread across the newspaper in big letters.
It bothers me because in more traditional usage, dating at least from Roman times, “black” in front of a day of the week conveys something bad. In the United States, “black” days of the week are associated with trouble in the stock market.
Black Tuesday: October 29, 1929, the day of the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression
Black Thursday: October 24, 1929, the day of the market downturn a few days before the big crash.
Black Monday: October 19, 1987, another stock market crash.
Other countries have similar calendar expressions to commemorate terrible things:
Black July: 1983 pogrom of Tamil population in Sri Lanka in which 1,000 died.
Black September: 1970 “era of regrettable events” during which 7,000 to 8,000 people died in Jordan as a result of hostilities involving the PLO.
The commercial meaning “the Friday after Thanksgiving which determines whether or not a retailer will make a profit for the year” is actually quite recent. The earliest documentation for this meaning of Black Friday is from the 1970s.
Why “black” Friday in the sense of retail profit?
In the old days, before programs like Quicken, when people still wrote in ledgers, accountants recorded income in black ink and outgo in red ink. (Come to think of it, computer programs use black and red in the same way.) Everyone, not just retailers, wants to end the year with a balance written in black ink. To be “in the red” is to have a negative balance.
The idea that the Friday after Thanksgiving is the official start of the Christmas shopping season predates the expression.
The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924 is probably what established this idea. The film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), watched by millions in the days leading up to Christmas, annually reinforces the association of frantic department store shopping with love, Kris Kringle, and making children happy.
An interesting bit of trivia: Although a Christmas film, Miracle on 34th Street was released on May 2, 1947. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck thought it wouldn’t make as much money if it were released in November or December. His publicists had to conceal the fact that it was about Christmas!
How times change. And language.