Today is Black Friday. I will participate by shopping to restock my larder.
But first, as a word conscious person, I sit here contemplating this day’s name.
It deserves a name because it has become as prominent in our culture as the holidays after which it occurs and toward which it points.
The second word of its name is obvious. It follows Thanksgiving, which is always on a Thursday. Thus, it joins the several day-of- the-week specific holidays besides Thanksgiving, such as Election Day, Easter Sunday, Labor Day, and so forth.
But why black?
A more interesting question.
Most color words have either a positive or negative connotative value, sometimes both as in green, which suggests both envy and the vitality of growing things. In this regard, black connotatively is largely negative as in the devil as the “black” man or in “black magic,” “black arts” and such.
Historically, from a white western civilization perspective, it had a profoundly negative connotation when applied to people, an unfortunate association that nonetheless persists although strong cultural pushback has somewhat reversed that value.
A prominent, and in this context apt, negative example is Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929 when the stock market crashed, apt because of its day of the week connection.
Black does have positive connotative values when applied to financial status as “in the black,” meaning profitable, as opposed to “in the red” indicating its opposite. In baseball parlance, a pitcher throwing on the black means placing the ball over the edge of the black outline of home plate, where it is difficult to hit hard.
A bit more neutral connotative value, perhaps, is in the phrase “in black and white” meaning clearly on record as text on a page.
None of which quite explains why the color is applied to the shopper frenzy of the day after Thanksgiving, when anything and everything, including wedding packages — I saw one such ad yesterday — is for sale at deep discount. I haven’t yet seen Black Friday sales on funerals but would not be surprised to encounter one, although admittedly the timing to take advantage of such a sale opportunity might be problematical.
I suppose you could pay in advance for your funeral package as some frugal, careful people do. Still, writing the ad copy associating that product with the holiday season would be a challenge.
A little online research does provide a seemingly irrelevant factoid as well as a more promising explanation.
The factoid assigns the first documented appearance of Black Friday to Philadelphia ca. 1961 to describe the extra heavy traffic congestion at the opening of the holiday shopping season. I am a little puzzled why “black” was chosen to describe that situation.
The more promising suggestion is that the sales of the day mark a turning point in retailers’ yearly balance sheets when their books turn from the red of loss to the black of profit. I imagine that items bought on such huge discount would not help improve the profit/loss ledger that much. But the volume of traffic in stores, as well as the forward-looking prospects of the month-long shopping season should pivot balance sheets toward profitability.
It took Melville a whole chapter of “Moby Dick” to explore the color of his famous white whale.
I’ve managed to exhaust what I can say about the association of the color black with the beginning of the holiday shopping season within the word count of my column.
That says something about both Herman and me, as well as the reach of our writerly ambitions.
With that in mind, I will turn my writer’s eye to the more manageable task of producing a grocery list.