What ‘Black Friday’ and ‘red ink’ have in common

Red and black ink have been paired since ancient Egypt, where scribes carried writing palettes with styluses and two colors of ink.

Staff

The day after Thanksgiving in the United States is Black Friday, when millions of Americans head to the stores for holiday shopping, producing what is widely considered the biggest shopping day of the year. Folk etymology holds that the name refers to the day that retailers finally begin turning a profit for the year and are thus “in the black,” in banking terms. Bookkeepers in the 19th century did indeed use black ink to record financial gains and red ink to indicate losses; “in the red” meaning “in debt” was first recorded in 1907, and “in the black” in 1923.  

But like much in the retail world, this etymology is an attempt to dress up a more mundane reality. Black Friday seems to have actually been coined by the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1960s. Faced with 12-hour shifts managing traffic jams and unruly shoppers, officers dreaded the day after Thanksgiving and gave it what historically had been an ominous nickname. (The first “Black Friday” was Sept. 4, 1869, when the gold market collapsed.) Retailers invented the “in the black” etymology in the 1980s, to give it more positive spin.

The red-ink side of the ledger turns out to be more interesting. Red and black ink have been paired since ancient Egypt, where scribes carried writing palettes with styluses and two colors of ink. Black was the default, perhaps because it could be made from soot, while red was used more sparingly to highlight, distinguish, or make corrections, as shown by a 4,000-year-old writing tablet that still contains the homework of scribe apprentice Iny-su, with spelling errors corrected in red. 

In ancient Rome, red ink was used to mark significant days on calendars, and Christianity continued this tradition. Saints’ birthdays and festivals were written in red ink, giving us the idiom a red-letter day, “a very happy and important day,” according to Merriam-Webster. Medieval manuscripts too gave pride of place to red ink. One or more scribes would copy a text in black, leaving space for titles, chapter headings, and large initial letters. A rubricator (from the Latin rubrica, “red ochre,” and ultimately ruber, “red”) would then take over and fill in these key parts. Our word rubric – “a set of guidelines or a protocol for how something will or should be done, like how an assignment will be graded” – comes from this practice of rubricating directions and key organizational parts of books.  

Black Friday, it turns out, isn’t actually the biggest shopping day of the year. The Saturday before Christmas (“Super Saturday”) generates billions more in revenue. But for people looking for deep discounts, Black Friday is still a red-letter day. 

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