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The Origin of Black Friday and Other Black Days

The term "Black Friday" first appeared in print in 1610, and it had very little to do with sales or Thanksgiving. The first Black Friday actually referred to tests in schools. 

By
Rebecca Hotchen, Writing for
Episode #596

Spreading Around the World

In recent years, we can be fairly sure which of these many Black Fridays is the subject of discussion in our New Monitor corpus, as the term sees almost no use through the year, and then skyrockets in November, petering out rapidly in December, and so coinciding with only one Black Friday on the calendar. Interestingly, this holds true even for British English, and Englishes in other parts of the world, where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. Though the term is much more common in US English than in British English, its use in the United States appears to be declining: November 2015 saw only two thirds as many instances of Black Friday in our corpus as November 2012. In contrast, use in British English is seeing a year on year increase, more than doubling between November 2012 and November 2013, and then seeing more than a 50% increase again between November 2013 and November 2014. It looks like the Brits might be catching up…

Black Monday, Black Tuesday, Black Wednesday…

Of course, Friday is not the only day to have found itself blackened. In fact, there is not a day of the week that has not earned its dark stripes through some disaster or other. The first day evidenced to have “black” prefixed to it was a Monday, more specifically Easter Monday; a quotation referring to Easter Monday as Black Monday has been found as early as 1389. There are a few competing theories for what caused the day to be so named. One historical theory holds that the name refers to a severe storm on Easter Monday in 1360, which led to the deaths of many soldiers of Edward III’s army during the Hundred Years’ War. A different historical theory purports that Black Monday is a reference to the massacre of English settlers in Dublin by the Irish on Easter Monday 1209. The name may be unrelated to either event, and may instead be linked to a general belief in the unlucky character of Mondays, possibly influenced in this case by the view that misfortune will naturally follow a celebration like that of Easter Sunday.

The next Black Monday, first quoted in the OED as far back as 1735, echoes our first Black Friday; this was school slang referring to the first day of term following a vacation. The mindset of the pupils bleakly returning to the classroom is readily recognizable and easy to imagine.

A third Black Monday—and the final one to have been noted in the OED—is affixed to a specific date: Monday 19 October 1987, which is the day of a world stock market crash. This reflects the wider trend of days of great financial disaster being marked as “black.” Black Wednesday is used to refer to the 16 September 1992, when there was a great surge in sales of the pound. And the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was so disastrous as to leave two days painted black in its wake: Black Thursday, 24 October 1929, which marked the first day of panic selling on the New York Stock Exchange; and Black Tuesday, the following week, which is widely regarded as the day the stock market crashed.

The most recent day to be referred to as Black Saturday in the OED was Saturday 4 August 1621, when the articles of Perth were ratified while a brutal storm cast its shadow over the day. Almost a century earlier, the first Black Saturday—and also the first “black” day in the OED attached to a specific date—took place on Saturday 10 September 1547, denoting the day of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, which saw Scotland catastrophically defeated.

The Advent of Cyber Monday

Though not a “black” day in itself, Cyber Monday follows Black Friday both on the calendar, and in word formation. Cyber Monday takes the traditional bargains of Black Friday to an online environment, but does it leave behind the last remnants of negativity that Black Friday is carrying? Perhaps not: of the first ten noun collocates of cyber that our Oxford English Corpus finds, only two are either positive or neutral (security; café). The other eight (including criminal, attack, and bullying) are all negative. This suggests that cyber might not be carrying the happiest connotations along with it, though it is doubtless an improvement on the memories of failed battles and financial collapse that cling to Black Friday.

Given the cyber nature of Cyber Monday, it might be expected that it is more international than Black Friday. So far, this does not seem the case: use of Cyber Monday in our New Monitor Corpus is still overwhelmingly US in origin, although its use in United States English seems to be in decline, while its use in other varieties is climbing. This mirrors the trends we saw earlier with Black Friday, suggesting that taking place online is not a major factor in making Cyber Monday a globally recognized event. If it continues to follow on in the footsteps of Black Friday, we may find ourselves fighting it out digitally as well as in the shops in order to grab the best bargains for Christmas.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog and is published here with permission.

Rebecca Hotchen is an editor for Oxford Dictionaries.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Rebecca Hotchen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Rebecca Hotchen is an editor for Oxford Dictionaries.

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