2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year: Black Friday

Long-time readers will know that every year I pick (with some helpful suggestions from readers) words of the year with a twist: they must be American words that made a splash in the UK, or British ones that found fame or infamy in the US. Or something like that. As I did last year, so here is the first one!

The 2013 US-to-UK Word of the Year is:

Black Friday

While we're at it, we might as well declare this the most annoying import in the seven years of this endeavo(u)r. But let's not blame America or Americans in general. Let's look at this WotY in a bit more detail. Then let's blame capitalism.

First, a definition: Black Friday is the Friday after American Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday of November), which is the popularly acknowledged start of the American Christmas-shopping season. Many people in the US have the day off work (or school) and retailers put on big sales, so the (AmE) malls/(BrE) shopping centres are heaving with people and unseemly behavio(u)r.

Why is this the US-to-UK Word of the Year? Because it was all over the UK media in the week of (and the week after) American Thanksgiving. (Three readers contacted me to nominate it--the only nomination I had this year.)  Here, for instance, are stories from The Telegraph, BBC News, The Mirror... (I would go on, but I'm sure you can google "Black Friday UK" yourself.) As well as 70% discounts, there was bad behavio(u)r (which you can find easily enough by googling "Black Friday UK bad behaviour"). 
Now, I know that some people will be wanting to complain "but it's not a word, it's a phrase". I've answered that objection before, since previous WotYs have also had spaces in them. To recap: there are many ways to define word, and perhaps the least interesting way, as far as linguists are concerned, is whether their written version has  a space in it. Grammatically, Black Friday acts like a word and it's the kind of thing that could be a headword in a dictionary--because its meaning is not directly derivable from its parts. So, it is word enough for me.
It is an annoying import because there is no logic to the importance of this day in the UK; it is a regular work/school day and the Christmas shopping season is already well underway in the UK by that time. For instance, the Christmas lights were ceremoniously turned on in Birmingham city centre (AmE downtown) on 9 November, on 14 November in Brighton and London's Oxford Street, and on 21 November in Guildford. (I could go on, but you can google "Christmas light switch-on UK" too.) 

What has brought "Black Friday" to the UK are US-owned retailers, notably Amazon and Walmart-owned Asda (site of much bad behavio[u]r--click the link for a story about that). These retailers are partial to some bad behavio[u]r themselves, such as union-busting (quelled at Asda, I should say), tax-evasion, and (particularly at Amazon) poor working conditions. So, American phrase, but please don't blame the average American. If you don't like it, then I recommend doing all your Christmas shopping for the following year in the very British Boxing Day sales and avoiding this whole sordid Black Friday business.


  1. Didn't Apple start it before Amazon? And given the zeal of the typical Apple fanboy …

  2. I did have it in my head that they might have. But then instead of looking into that, I got distracted by ranting (in links) about Amazon...

  3. Do American speakers no longer use Black DAY 0F THE WEEK the way we do - to commemorate days of disaster?

    Our last one was Black Wednesday in 1992, which was a disaster for the UK economy. I learn from the OED that you had a Black Wednesday in 1872 which was a stock market crash.

    What? I now discover another US market crash, one that I'd forgotten about, called Black Monday in 1987. Has everybody else forgotten too?

    OK, it's no big deal for an idiom to have two meanings. But there's a pretty radical contrast between grim a day of disaster and an exhuberant day of shopping bargains.

    If you believe in grand conspiracies, and in a single body with agency called 'capitalism', then I suppose you could see it as a campaign to bury the association with days that marked capitalism's failure.

  4. And another forgotten Black Friday in 1869, which involved Ulysses S Grant and some gold speculators, and ended in a stock market 'panic' — which I've always assumed to be much the same as a 'crash'.

  5. Lynne, how comfortable are you with the word "CENTRE" ?
    Shopping Centre is okay, but the centre of the universe? I also prefer center of attention, et al. Full disclosure - I'm Canadian. Thanks, eh. Mark

  6. David Crosbie: At the risk of showing my age,
    The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as Black Tuesday...

  7. M Hanson

    Yes, the OED has a sub-section:

    b. Prefixed to the name of a day of the week to denote a specific past date associated with disaster, defeat, ruin, etc. In later use esp.: denoting a day of panic in the financial world, such as may be caused by a sudden fall in share prices.

  8. Thanks, David.
    Sad, though, that even the OED turns nouns into verbs - "Prefixed"?
    Ugh! I welcome the end times!
    Have a Golden Sunday! Cheers!

  9. M Hanson


    The earliest recorded use is in 1605, when it was spelled præfixed

  10. The 1538 Coverdale Bible's Epistle Dedicatory has (per the OED3, orthography modernized by me):

    "I did ... direct an Epistle unto the king's most noble grace: trusting, that the book (whereunto it was prefixed) should afterward have been as well correct as other books be."

  11. John Cowan,

    Yes, but the 1605 præfixed is the first recorded use as applied to word-formation.

    1605 W. Camden Remaines i. 104 All which in Latine old Evidences have had De prefixed.

  12. "Black Friday" has existed in many years in Bridgwater in Somerset, UK, where it refers to the day after the Guy Fawkes Parade in the town - those who were involved in the Parade rampage through the town, celebrating in a *very* alcoholic manner.

  13. There are many Black Fridays, but all I'm talking about here is its use to mean 'the 4th Friday in November'.

    Note that the other WotY, 'bum' has also existed longer in AmE, but with another meaning ('hobo', 'tramp'). So, in considering things 'words (of the year)' here I'm considering them not just as forms, but as form-meaning combinations.

  14. Black Friday did seem to appear out of nowhere this year, I kept seeing it in shops (not just the ones you mentioned, either) and ended up having to Google it to find out what on earth it was. It does irritate me to have an American event imposed on us that way, especially as it seems to be connected to Thanksgiving, which funnily enough we don't celebrate here.

  15. By the way, I found your comment about the American Christmas-shopping season quite interesting - did you mean that it's when shops start selling/advertising their Christmas stock, or when people tend to start buying things for Christmas, or both?

    Either one surprises me, since shops here tend to start trying to flog Christmas things as early as they can possibly get away with (summer isn't uncommon) and while some people end up doing last-minute shopping trips on Christmas Eve, I also know plenty of people who choose to spread the cost over several months.

  16. Hello Commonwealth!
    Black Friday crept into Canada this year like never before as well! It's such an important time of year for the retail sector, and its growth here is partly to discourage Canadians cross-border shopping.
    I guess that's the price we pay for sharing a border with a $uperpower.

  17. Lanta - Both, pretty much. Decorations have crept forward into early november, but stores don't really start the full-on Christmas assault until Thanksgiving. October is uncommon and summer unheard-of.
    David Crosbie - It does sound a little dreary, but Americans don't especially use "Black (day of the week)" to commemorate major disasters, mostly just stock-market crashes, and other than 1929, (maybe 1987 too in finance circles) the names would only come up in text-books.
    FWIW, the folk-etymology of the name is that the day after thanksgiving is the first day that the stores' ledgers turn a profit (go into the black) on the year. The day after the last NFL game (today) when all the failing football coaches are fired is sometimes called Black Monday in the sports pages.

  18. Just to reiterate the above.
    We still have "Black (insert day here)" to mean sad days, but generally, we just use the date or the name of the place the disaster happened.

    But "Black Friday" is so called due to the financial institutions finally being "In the black" meaning turning a profit, as opposed to "In the red"

  19. If you said shopping center(!) in the US, I don't think anyone would be confused just probably consider you speaking archaically.

  20. By my faith! Would they?
    Egads - those saucy jackanapes!
    Thanks for the Reply, Happy New Year, and thank you for some of my favourite (sic.- obv) poetry and quotes.

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  24. As well as the news item to which Lynne gives a link, BBC News gives a definitive history of the term here.

    • It includes documented proof that Black Friday was used in as early as 1951 for the shopping day but still in its negative sense. It was a black day for shop assistants, according to a union circular of 1951:

    "'Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis' is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that's the feeling of those who have to get production out, when Black Friday comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick - and can prove it,"

    • It proves the story that it was a Philadelphia term before it was nationally known — a black day for traffic police and bus drivers. The proof is a reproduction of a New York news story from 1975, and it quotes a Philadelphia story of 1961.

    • It reports the slow spread of the term to Trenton, New Jersey, then not to the US generally until the 1980's.

    • The most fascinating detail is that the Friday-after-Thanksgiving-shopping-day was of crucial importance in US history. It's not so much that it's based on the date of Thanksgiving — rather that the date of Thanksgiving is based on the unnamed day that eventually acquired the name Black Friday.

    In 1939 Thanksgiving fell on November 30, to the fury of businesses faced with a shorter pre-Christmas shopping season. So they successfully lobbied to have the date changed changed from 'the last Thursday in November' to 'the third Thursday in November'.

    I found this article when checking on a Guardian article which unhelpfully explains Black Friday as 'the first weekend in December'.

  25. from 'the last Thursday in November' to 'the third Thursday in November'.

    To the *fourth* Thursday in November; which is the last Thursday in 5 years out of 7; the other 2 have 5 Thursdays in November, as 1939 did.

    One reason the US Christmas lead-up is shorter is that the US has a better spacing of public holidays: about once a month most of the year.* The UK has none between the August bank holiday** and Christmas Day.

    *OTOH the US has shorter annual leave entitlements.

    **The UK also sucks at giving names to its holidays.

  26. Mollymooly

    **The UK also sucks at giving names to its holidays.

    It's hard to do much with holidays that must be:

    1. Mondays

    2. not a fixed date

    3. not a religious festival, or even attached to one (no more Whit Mondays)

    4. not blatantly associated with a political slant (not May Day)

    US Thanksgiving manages to meet similar constraints (substituting Thursday for Monday), but it's a commemoration — something in we can't bring ourselves include in our public holidays (unless you count Christmas).

    Christmas and New Year aside, UK public holidays are not a celebration, they're a gift from grudging authority.

  27. I've blogged about the lack of holidays and holiday names before here.

    David Crosbie: I'm sad for the lack of imagination on holiday names! American ones are mostly on Mondays and are very close to the UK bank holidays (end of May, end of August). We just give them names.

    Make the early May bank holiday 'Labour Day' (ok, maybe too party-political) or 'Workers' Day' or something like that (since it's close to the international one). Stick in a 'Day of the Child' or a day to hono(u)r the Commonwealth or Stiff Upper Lip Day.

    I know, I know...such ideas seem unseemly and American. :)

  28. Lynne

    We do have imagination, it's just that it works differently.

    When we hear the name of a day, our imagination paints us a picture of whose day it is.

    Good Friday, Id al Adha, Yom Kippur, Diwali etc belong to various religions.

    International Women's Day, Commonwealth Day (formerly Empire Day) and the modern version of May Day belong to politically motivated interest groups.

    The Glorious Twelfth belongs to the aristocracy and landed gentry, shred now with the rich. Michaelmas and the other quarter days belong (belonged?) to lawyers.

    Day of the Child and Stiff Upper Lip Day would in my imagination be like buttons or ribbons issued by the special interest groups who owned them.

    April Fools Day belong to us the people, along with the old May Day, Pancake Day and localised fossils such as Plough Monday. A few Catholics excepted, we own Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Day and the Scots don't mind sharing Hogmanay with us. We used to own Halloween, but now we mostly share your version.

    (Until recently, Edinburgh University students owned Mealy Monday, which allowed them to come back from the Highland with their bag of oats for the second half of term without having to travel on a Sunday. )

    Commemorative days are possessed by the nation, but it's up to the individual to feel ownership. Trafalgar Day is not what it was but Remembrance Day is cherished. In contrast with Russia and the old Soviet Union, VE Day is largely uncelebrated. I suspect >Battle of Britain Day invites more affection.

    By contrast, public holidays are state assets, controlled by governments and administered by bureaucrats. They granted to us to enjoy, but can be withdrawn or moved to different dates at a whim. We have no secure ownership. Why, then, would we want to have names for them? OK, if they deign to give us public holidays on days that already have names, we do use them: Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Day Good Friday. But we'd still use them if they ceased to be holidays.

    Of course, our bank holidays are a good thing. They were seized by the state from commerce and gifted to citizens. But we the citizenry feel that they were not invented here. We'll save the names for our own days, thank you.

    The point about this Black Monday is that it's owned by retailers. It belongs in a group with Fathers Day and your Mothers Day (our Mothering Sunday is different). Retailers have made a substantial grab for Halloween, but are not outright owners. They have an interest in only three aspects of Christmas: the catering, the greetings cards and the gifts.

    Earlier Black Mondays and other black days of the week weren't so much owned as suffered by stock markets, governments, shop assistants, traffic cops and other defined groups.

  29. Another difference: I see the government as the representatives of the people, not as just a bureaucracy.

    An ideali{s/z}ed view, yes, but a very important one to me. And I wouldn't see a holiday celebrating childhood, if there were one, as something belonging to a special interest group. I'd make it my own, because it's been put on the calendar for me. (It's an idea from Japan that I admire.) Similarly, American Memorial Day is just a made-up day, but it's a day when many people make an effort to tend graves.

    (the 'lack of imagination' jibe was just teasing, you know!)

    Going back to your first comment (and others subsequently)--the 'Black Friday' name is another example of the form of 'Black X' for disasters, in that it's a disaster for shoppers, drivers, etc. Positive connotations of being 'in the black' seem to be an afterthought. (See, e.g. the Wikipedia entry on the term.)

  30. Lynne

    Another difference: I see the government as the representatives of the people, not as just a bureaucracy.

    It's our government if we voted for it, otherwise it's part of them.

    I think that's why we're so resistant to the republican idea. The argument used to be 'Think of President Thatcher' or 'Think of President Blair' according to your personal politics. I'm not sure who today's bogy men would be.

    Of course, things do change if we have some foreigners to unite against — Brussels is the current favourite, though we mustn't forget the French. In that case, our government is batting for Britain. But that sort of unity isn't concerned with domestic concerns like public holidays.

    Now, if there was ever a proposal for European Union Day or a Brussels directive to harmonise public holidays ...

  31. oooh, best idea yet:

    Let's observe all the holidays in the EU!

    It's Orthodox Christmas! Let's all go home!

  32. I'M IN ! (I mean I'd be out...)
    Let's such days "An Orthodox"

  33. I'M IN ! (I mean I'd be out...)
    Let's call such days "An Orthodox"

  34. С рождеством Христово!

    Mind you, not all Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar. And of those that do, some allow branches in the West to celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar.

    In Russia, secular celebrations follow the Gregorian calendar — hence the celebration of the October revolution in November. However, there's on exception. Old New Year is celebrated on the night of January 13th to 14th. This is an entirely private celebration, owing nothing to Church or State, so it often creates the best parties of the season.

  35. M Hanson

    Yes, the OED has a sub-section:

    b. Prefixed to the name of a day of the week to denote a specific past date associated with disaster, defeat, ruin, etc. In later use esp.: denoting a day of panic in the financial world, such as may be caused by a sudden fall in share prices.

    A bit of an Australian aside but "Black " is used here in Australia to refer specifically to certain infamous bushfire events.

    *Red Tuesday (1898)
    *Ash Wednesday (1980), Ash Wednesday II (1983)
    *Black Friday (1939)
    *Black Saturday (2009)
    *Black Sunday (1926, 1959)
    *Black Christmas (2001)

    Any religious meaning is almost completely lost due to the high non-religiousness/indifference of the population. I couldn’t even have told you when Ash Wednesday or Black Friday was as far as being a religious observance.

    Any sale day using any of those names or variations there of, would be denounced VERY strongly.

  36. Just a note: "Black Friday" isn't really a time-honored American expression, but more something that came out of nowhere about 10 years ago. I'd never heard of it before then, even though the phenomenon it describes (the huge shopping day that follows Thanksgiving) has been around forever.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)