Blog Excerpts

Back in Black: On the Origins of "Black Friday"

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Americans kick off the holiday shopping season with a bang. We look back to a Word Routes column by lexicographer Ben Zimmer exploring the origins of the phrase "Black Friday." It is not, as many believe, the day when retailers' balance sheets change from red to black.

The latest research on the origins of "Black Friday" has been conducted by Bonnie Taylor-Blake, who has shared her findings on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society. The earliest known example of "Black Friday" to refer to the day after Thanksgiving is from an article entitled "Friday After Thanksgiving" in the November 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance. The article (posted by Taylor-Blake here) was about worker absenteeism on that day, rather than the shopping rush.

But in the early 1960s, "Black Friday" came to be used in Philadelphia to describe the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush. Taylor-Blake discovered an article in a public relations newsletter from 1961 that uses "Black Friday" in its current meaning.

The origin of "Black Friday" among Philadelphia police officers of the early '60s is further reinforced by a 1994 article for The Philadelphia Inquirer by Joseph P. Barrett, who recounted his role in popularizing the expression when he worked as a reporter for The Philadelphia Bulletin. He credits the traffic cops, who had to work 12-hour shifts the day after Thanksgiving.

Read the whole column here. You can also hear Ben Zimmer talk about "Black Friday" in recent interviews for NPR's "Weekend Edition" and KUOW-Seattle's "The Record."

And check out his latest column for the Wall Street Journal on the retail tradition of the doorbuster, which has long been associated with Black Friday sales. More on NPR's "Morning Edition":

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 28th 2014, 5:40 AM
Comment by: Neil C.
We don't celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, yet "Black Friday" is now firmly established here too. Weird!
Friday November 28th 2014, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Clement G. (Montreal Canada)
Question: Is the word "prep" for preparation (n) accepted in other context than school (prep school)? Can we say "surface prep before painting an object" ?
Friday November 28th 2014, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Clement G.: I hear chefs say, all the time, "Let's start prep!" meaning it's time to stop chopping and peeling and measuring.

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