How did “Black Friday” get its name?

November 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

This week Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day, the most important holiday in the United States because of its universal appeal. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin, or political persuasion, the people of the United States will gather to eat turkey and watch football on Thursday. Every year, I devote this space to a Thanksgiving themed post (If you are interested on learning more about the holiday’s meaning, history, or the crucial role interpreting played at the first Thanksgiving, please see these earlier posts: “Where do Thanksgiving traditions come from?” and “Interpreter played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving”; however, this time I will not talk about the meaning or history of the holiday. I will center on the day after Thanksgiving: The so-called “Black Friday”.

Most of you know of this American tradition of taking the stores by storm on the day after Thanksgiving to take advantage of reduced prices, and get started on the Christmas shopping.  In fact, many other countries have followed suit, and now it I common practice, whether you call it “Black Friday”, “El Buen Fin”, or any other name.   Because we work with words, I thought it would be interesting to see how the day when more than 135 million Americans go to the stores got his name.

There are several myths and stories, but not all of them are true. Some explain that the origin of “Black Friday” comes from the financial crisis of 1869 when the United States gold market crashed on Friday, September 24 when two Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for enormous profit. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone in Wall Street. The press referred to the day as “Black Friday”. This is a good story, but it is not the true origin of the name.

There is another horrible, and totally baseless, legend that attributes the origin of the name “Black Friday” to the 1800s Southern plantation owners who could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. This version of “Black Friday’s” roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, but it is a fabrication with no basis in fact.

The most popular explanation for the “Black Friday” name has to do with holiday shopping. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers spent so much money on discounted merchandise. It is true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting.  Even though this is the “official” version of the term “Black Friday”, it is also inaccurate.

In the 1950s the Philadelphia Police Department used the term to describe the chaos on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the confusion in the stores to steal merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache. By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations.

The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, sometime in the late 1980s. Retailers found a way to reinvent “Black Friday” and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit, despite the fact that traditionally most stores see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.  The “Black Friday” story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten.

Fast forward to the present and now you see stores that open earlier and earlier every year, and shoppers that head out right after their Thanksgiving meal. I hope this brief history of the term “Black Friday” makes us reflect on the importance that words have in everything we do. I know most Americans will be thinking of the bargains on Friday, but I sure hope that some of you, dear friends and colleagues, will see the commercial event from your perspective as interpreters and translators. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

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