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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

black Friday

(1990’s | businese (finance)?, advertese? | “opening of the shopping season”)

If you’re old-fashioned, this phrase must have puzzled you as it did me, but you probably needed less time to figure it out. For years I wondered how one of the direst days in the capitalist calendar had turned into the glorious gateway to profitability for our nation’s hard-working retailers. It’s a vertiginous reversal of meaning on a par with the identification of Republicans with the color red, a source of vexation to anyone who knows anything about American history before 1965 or so. The original black Friday panic occurred way back in 1869, when a pair of modest, public-spirited speculators tried and failed to corner the gold market, and the term has since been applied to other financial panics. “Black Friday” has been used to denominate other catastrophes as well, just as other days of the week have been adorned with “black” to convey calamity.

There is a pretty firm on-line consensus that “Black Friday” assumed its modern sense in Philadelphia in the mid-sixties, where police officers used it to refer to the beginning of the shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving. And they called it that because for them, it WAS a catastrophe — traffic snarls, crowds of volatile shoppers, many possibilities for confusion and crime. The other popular theory, that “black” refers to profits (in other words, “Black Friday” is the day that stores operate in or go into the black), seems to have arisen later, although one source says there’s no definitive evidence one way or the other. Two less common explanations — that it’s Black Friday specifically for retail employees, because it’s their worst day of the year; or that it starts and ends when it’s dark out, unlike most shopping days — seem less likely even if simpler and more intuitively satisfying, but who knows?

Those of you who read this post looking for actual shopping advice, don’t go away mad. Take a look at’s tips for making the most of this year’s shopping season.


(1990’s | advertese | “special promotion,” “early-bird sale,” “low, low prices”)

Like “no-brainer,” this word has wound up with a more complicated meaning than it should have. A “doorbuster” ought to be a battering ram, it seems to me, and it was occasionally used that way in discussions of police equipment or procedure. But somewhere in there, another meaning that started to effloresce in the 1980’s (or even the late 1970’s) took precedence. Actually two meanings: the sense of “overwhelming bargain” seems always to have coexisted with “early-morning sale.” If anything, the two senses have merged in today’s parlance — although what used to be early-morning store openings threaten to become late-night store openings this year: Target and other big outlets plan to open Thanksgiving night, when patriotic Americans ought to be home sleeping off the potent mix of gluttony and football that marks our celebration of national gratitude. By the current millennium, “doorbuster” had fully become a consumer term, almost invariably associated with pre-Christmas sales. They have become an inescapable part of the consumer landscape, a Black Friday rite, marking the formal opening of the sacred Christmas shopping season. Tragedy strikes occasionally, as in the trampling of Jdimytai Damour in 2008, but that hasn’t dimmed our enthusiasm.

It’s a little strange that the word has steadfastly remained an adjective describing sales or discounts, never a noun denoting consumers who attend such sales. I would have expected that to happen by now. I have started to see it as a noun denoting the sale or bargain itself (as in “doorbusters at Kiehl’s” in the Chicago Sun-Times, or “Black Friday doorbusters” in the Bryan (TX) Eagle.) This usage will undoubtedly grow over time. The word has an obvious literal derivation but seems equally obviously influenced by “blockbuster,” which became familiar after World War II (it was military slang for heavy bombs used in aerial attacks on cities).

When I started thinking about this post, I assumed that I’d have no trouble finding lots of new terms in the consumer lexicon, but I didn’t find much. Of the terms I’ve covered so far, only “demographic,” “gifting,” and maybe “cocooning,” seem to belong in that category. No end of new products, some of which would qualify for the blog, but the fundamental consumer vocabulary hasn’t expanded much. Or maybe I missed something obvious — wouldn’t be the first time. Our consumer culture takes up a lot of bandwidth. Here’s a heretical point of view.

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