Black Friday & Cyber Monday

In the U.S., the Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday. The day is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season and is the busiest shopping day of the year, with many stores offering sales and discounts. But this is not the only meaning for the phrase Black Friday. Where does the term come from and when was it coined?

Use of Black Friday to refer to the big shopping day following Thanksgiving dates to 1960 when it was used by police in cities, in particular in Philadelphia, to refer to the traffic conditions on that day. Traffic in Philadelphia used to be particularly bad on that day because the Army-Navy football game was, until 2009, held in the city on that weekend. From Women’s Wear Daily of 28 November 1960:

Reports from police officials forecasting record traffic jams, both vehicular and pedestrian, for “black Friday.”

And there is this from Public Relations News of 18 December of the following year:

For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. [...] In Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.

It is often thought that the day is so called because it is the date when retailers annual sales figures become profitable, that is move from the red into the black. But this is a post hoc rationalization and is not the original metaphor underlying the phrase.

There is an earlier, apparently one-off, use of Black Friday to refer to the day after Thanksgiving, but this is a reference to worker absenteeism on that day, not shopping. From Factory Management & Maintenance of November 1951:

“Friday-after-Thanksgiving-it is” is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. [...] When you decide you want to sweeten up the holiday kitty, pick Black Friday to add to the list [...] Friday after Thanksgiving is the company’s seventh paid holiday.

But the day after Thanksgiving is not the only Black Friday in history. Other dates that have been so christened include: 6 December 1745, the day when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival in Britain was announced in London; 11 May 1866, the day of a stock market panic in London; and 24 September 1869, the day of a financial panic on Wall Street over falling gold prices.

The use of black + day-of-the-week to designate a date on which something bad happened is much, much older, dating to at least 1576 when Black Saturday was used to denote 10 December 1547, when the Scottish army was defeated by the English at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh during the conflict known as the Rough Wooing. Perhaps the most famous of the black days is Black Thursday of 24 October 1929, the date of the Wall Street stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. That name appeared within a few days. From the Chicago Tribune of 26 October 1929:

Berlin financial circles yesterday declared that “black Thursday” on the New York Stock exchange had brought forth a sigh of relief throughout Europe, which suffered from the “exaggerated speculation” that had been going on in Wall street.

Back to the topic of post-Thanksgiving shopping, the Monday after the holiday has been christened Cyber Monday. This day is alleged to be the busiest online shopping day of the year—with people using their internet connections at work to shop. The day, however, is not the busiest online shopping day of the year. In fact, it is nowhere near the busiest online shopping day.

Cyber Monday was coined on 19 November 2005 when Shop.org, an association of online retailers, made the claim to the New York Times that it was expecting a “substantial sales increase” on that day:

Hence the catchy Cyber Monday, so called because millions of productive Americans, fresh off a weekend at the mall, are expected to return to work and their high-speed Internet connections on Nov. 28 and spend the day buying what they liked in all those stores.


Sources:

Barbero, Michael. “Ready, Aim, Shop. Five Trends to Watch This Holiday Season.” New York Times, 19 November 2005, C1, C4.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Third Edition. September 2011. s. v. Black Friday, n., black, adj. & n., Black Saturday, n., Black Thursday, n.

Taylor-Blake, Bonnie. “‘Black Friday’ (day after Thanksgiving), 1951.” American Dialect Society Email List (ADS-L). 4 August 2009.

Zimmer, Ben. “The Origins of ‘Black Friday.’” Word Routes. 25 November 2011.

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