The True Origin Of The Term 'Black Friday'

Nov 29, 2013
Originally published on November 29, 2013 1:20 pm

Many people assume the term “Black Friday” comes from the massive shopping day, the day after Thanksgiving, that puts retailers back in the black.

But as linguist Ben Zimmer tells Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti, the term can be traced to the frustration of factory managers in the 1950s, and the frustration of Philadelphia traffic police in the 1960s.

Zimmer says the rebranded term referring to retailers turning a profit didn’t appear until the 1980s.

Guest

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Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW.

Ever wondered what the term Black Friday really means? Well, if you guess that it's the day store ledgers go from red to black, you're not alone, and you are wrong. Linguist Ben Zimmer set us straight when I first asked him about this last year.

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BEN ZIMMER: Well, it first became attached to the big post-Thanksgiving shopping rush in the early 1960s in Philadelphia when the police who had to deal with all of the traffic headaches thought that that was just the worst day that they had to deal with.

CHAKRABARTI: So it's a Black Friday in the 1960s because it was dark day for police officers who had to control traffic. But from what I understand, the term itself, Black Friday, dates to even further back than 1960s.

ZIMMER: That's true. One researcher has actually turned up a mentioned of Black Friday, referring to the Friday after Thanksgiving, about a decade before that, in 1951, in a journal that was about factory management, where they talked about Black Friday having to do with worker absenteeism. So the factory managers would call that Black Friday.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you've dug up a 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance, it looks like an industry journal. And there's an article in that that begins like this - again, this is 1951 - quote: Friday after Thanksgiving-itis is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that's the feeling of those who have to get production out when the Black Friday comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick and can prove it.

So again, that's from the 1951 notion of Black Friday being one of absenteeism. But I understand that having it associated with a retail day actually didn't make the merchants all that happy.

ZIMMER: No. They didn't want to be associated with this term, which was, obviously, very negative. And, in fact, that term, Black Friday, has been associated with particularly notorious days all the way back to the 18th century. And there were some financial panics in the 19th century that were also referred to as Black Friday. So we see in the early examples, the retailers say, can we call this something else? How about Big Friday? They wanted to rebrand it into something more positive.

But by the 1980s, they had taken that expression, Black Friday, and given it a new explanation. It wasn't because of all the traffic snarls that people had to deal with. But instead, the story about how their stores were going to go into the black, they were going to turn a profit, starts showing up in the 1980s, after about 20 years of usage.

Huh. Interesting. So you've written that this misunderstanding - or maybe a better term for it is evolution of what Black Friday really means - actually falls into the wider category of something known as etymythology.

That's a great term that a linguist at Yale University named Larry Horn came up with to describe the false etymologies that people come up with, which seemed a bit like urban myths. And it's interesting to see something like this where we can say pretty firmly that the retail explanation of Black Friday is just historically not true.

But now it feeds into a kind of a mythology that the retailers themselves perpetuate over the years. And if you are in the retail business, you will learn this story. You will accept it as part of retail lore. And so it just circulates that way, even if it doesn't actually have that historical truth to it.

CHAKRABARTI: Ben, always great to have you. Thank you so much.

ZIMMER: Oh, thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: Linguist Ben Zimmer. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.