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'Black Friday': A Busy Shopping Day for Sure, but a Murky Origin

AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: With the national observance of Thanksgiving Day coming up this Thursday, we turn to a linguistic mystery about the day after, which traditionally opens the Christmas holiday shopping season in America. Bonnie Taylor-Blake is a language detective. Actually that's not her only job.

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "I'm actually a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina, which is in Chapel Hill. I have an amateur's interest, though, in linguistics and folklore and history."

AA: "So here's a question we got by e-mail. It says, 'I've been living in the United States for almost twenty-nine years. Why do people call the day after Thanksgiving Day "Black Friday"?' And I understand you've done a little research into this."

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "I should back up just for a second, though, and explain that he's in good company, because a lot of Americans were unfamiliar with the term Black Friday until about a decade ago. Its more modern application is in regard to profitability for the day. So a lot of people think that the black in Black Friday refers to ledger books going from negative values, which would be in the red, into positive values, which is into the black."

AA: "Which refers to the color of the ink that was used."

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "Exactly right. And that's absolutely true and it's a perfectly valid explanation, though it may not be historically correct. Some research I did sort of indicates that this term probably originated in the late fifties, early sixties, and it was probably used as a term, sort of a pejorative term, a sort of tongue-in-cheek term to refer to the day after Thanksgiving. And this is in Philadelphia, by the way -- "

AA: "In the state of Pennsylvania."

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "Exactly, as a day of sort of disaster and woe, where downtown Philadelphia was completely swamped with holiday shoppers. And we think that the police department, members of the police force sort of had this as a slang description for that day, because they were going to be faced with huge traffic woes and probably snarling customers on sidewalks. It was just going to be a real headache for police and probably for transit workers like cab drivers and bus drivers as well."

AA: "So it wasn't the storekeepers, then, who were using that term?"

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "My hunch is that storekeepers had heard that a lot of people were using this term jokingly to talk about that day, and my feeling is that they may have been a little afraid that this would keep shoppers from downtown Philadelphia.

"So I sense an effort on the part of retailers to try to convince the public that the black actually referred to a very bright day of sales for merchants. And therefore we get back to the old accounting practice of going from the red to the black."

AA: "How convenient."

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "Yes, but the problem with that theory is, first of all, it's clear that that explanation for the meaning of Black Friday comes well after -- by about fifteen years -- the earliest citing we have for police using Black Friday with reference to the day. Another problem is, a huge financial disaster that took place in American history -- I think it was eighteen sixty-nine -- where there was a complete destruction of the gold market, and that is referred to as Black Friday.

"So why would merchants sort of gleefully adopt, out of the blue, this expression Black Friday when it actually has a bigger, larger meaning in American economic history as a complete failure of the economy."

AA: "Well, you know now there's another myth associated with Black Friday, and do you know what I'm talking about?"

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "That it's the most profitable shopping day of the year?"

AA: "That's right."

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "Unfortunately I don't really know all the data on that, but I do know that David and Barbara Mikkelson of have looked at that very intensely and they've pretty much debunked that one. It's certainly a very profitable day, but it's not -- it probably on the top five."

AA: "Are you on the trail of any other terms?"

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "Oh, a phrase that is really puzzling to linguists, even amateur linguists like me, is the origin of 'the whole nine yards.'"

AA: "Aha."

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "For example, if you're getting ready to go on a trip and you're packing your suitcase, you have a list of items and you want to make sure that you include 'the whole nine yards,' what you would ever possibly need on that trip."

AA: "What are going to be doing on Thanksgiving?"

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "We're going to my sister's house in Cary, North Carolina, and having a traditional dinner there."

AA: "A big turkey and all?"

BONNIE TAYLOR-BLAKE: "Yep, the whole nine yards."

AA: Bonnie Taylor-Blake is an amateur linguist when she's not working as a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. I'm Avi Arditti.