Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and 'tradition'

Tradition, as that great American folk philosopher, Yogi Berra, might have observed, is not what it used to be. My "click" moment on this point came several days ago as I heard some talking head on the radio going on about how the shopping madness of "black Friday" - the day after Thanksgiving - has become an "enshrined tradition."

Whatever happened to saving "tradition" to describe Christmas caroling, or baking gingerbread cookies? And then "enshrined" - in effect, made sacred? What's up with that?

"Enshrined," in its most literal sense, means "put in a special box," such as a reliquary. "Shrine" is traced to the same Indo-European root (meaning "to bend or turn") as "shrink," and so the exalted concept of enshrining and the mundane, commercial-sounding concept of shrink-wrapping are arguably related.

But when Tevye sang and danced in celebration of "Tradition," he surely wasn't thinking of a shopping orgy.

"Tradition" derives from the Latin tradere, "to deliver." A tradition is that which is delivered - Grandma's recipe for gingerbread, for instance. ("Treason," amateur etymologists will be interested to know, is a black-sheep cousin - the idea behind that word is that one hands over, or delivers, one's compatriots or one's country to the hands of the enemy.)

"Tradition" is at home in the kitchen or the workshop (craftsmen's techniques) as well as in the grander forums of the public square (civil liberties or open debate) or our houses of worship. But something in me resists applying the term to the encrustations of our commercial culture.

Black Friday - sounds grim, doesn't it? - is said to be so called because it's the date that retail merchants' finances go into the black for the year.

More recently we have been introduced, by an outfit called Shop.org, to the faux tradition of "Cyber Monday" - the "traditional" opening day of the online shopping season - "the day many employees begin their heavy-duty online shopping from the comfort of high-speed, secure Internet connections at work," as the online publication Network World helpfully explained.

Shop.org itself had this to say in a press release:

"While traditional retailers will be monitoring store traffic and sales on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), online retailers have set their sights on something different: Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, which is quickly becoming one of the biggest online shopping days of the year."

But Shop.org is not exactly a disinterested party in all this: It's a trade association of online retailers.

As a bit of entrepreneurial chutzpah, this is along the same lines as the diamond cartel's campaign to convince prospective bridegrooms that it's "traditional" to spend two months' salary on an engagement ring.

"Tradition" seems to have a shorter cycle nowadays. Thus it is possible, for instance, to talk about "smartphones" contrasted with "traditional cellphones," by which is meant, presumably, those that don't take pictures or include a global positioning function.

Harrumph! If you want to talk about "tradition" with regard to the phone, I will talk to you of phones that were solid black, heavy as bricks, and bolted into the wall.

Gimme a break! Or as Scrooge would say, "Bah, humbug!"

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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