Often referred to as Black Friday in the US, the Friday after Thanksgiving marks the start of the Christmas and holiday shopping season, during which crowds of consumers are drawn to retailers offering special deals.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the day after Thanksgiving has been called Black Friday since at least the early 1960s. The explanation typically given for the day’s name is that it is the first day of the year that retailers are in the black as opposed to being in the red. In other words, the day is the first of the year that retailers have turned a profit. The use of colors here refers back to the bookkeeping practice of recording the credit side of an account in a ledger in black ink and the debit side in red ink. Thanks to the volume of sales on Black Friday, retailers are – notionally at least – in the black after the holiday shopping rush.
However, the black ink explanation is probably not the origin of the term. The more likely story is that ‘Black Friday’ started out as a joking reference to how bad the traffic would be on this day. Due to the influx of enthusiastic shoppers into city centers, the congestion was the worst that it would be all year. Early citations in the OED indicate that the term may have originated among police officers and bus drivers, who no doubt would have dreaded this traffic-heavy day. The use of this term seems to have started in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before spreading to other areas of the country. In this instance of ‘Black Friday,’ the word black refers to a situation that is “characterized by tragic or disastrous events” or “causing despair or pessimism,” although the use is understood as being humorous.
Historically, Black Fridays have not been appended to positive events. For instance, there have been other Black Fridays besides the one referencing holiday shopping. The other Black Friday defined in OxfordDictionaries.com refers to Friday, September 24, 1869, when several speculators attempted to corner the US gold market. President Ulysses S. Grant responded by releasing all government-held gold for sale, thereby causing the price of gold to plummet and creating a stock market panic. Similarly, the day that share prices collapsed on Tuesday, October 29, 1929, ultimately causing the Great Depression, is referred to as Black Tuesday.
Black Friday is not the only day of the consumer shopping season to receive a special moniker. The Monday following Thanksgiving is known in the US as Cyber Monday, thanks to the efforts of online retailers to draw in business through similar promotional offers.