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(Reuters) - Most Americans associate the words "Black Friday" with the ritual of excited consumers rising early to begin holiday shopping in search of doorbuster deals, but the term's origins have a deeper, darker meaning.
The Friday after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, known as "Black Friday," now marks the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season, the most critical time of the year for the nation's $4 trillion retail sector.
It is also the busiest shopping day of the year, as chain stores pry bargain-hungry shoppers from their turkey-induced slumbers for early discounts and special deals.
Industry lore says the name once referred to when retailers would turn a profit, or go "into the black," for the year.
"Some people felt that this was the day of reckoning -- either we're going to make it on this day or not," said Walter Loeb, president of Loeb Associates, a management consultancy to the retail industry.
Of course not all retailers lost money, or were "in the red," for the first three quarters, Loeb said, but the day came to be seen as a barometer for the holiday season, which can account for the bulk of a retailer's annual sales.
Yet the term itself is much older than modern retail.
Dictionary.com says "Black Friday" was used to describe September 24, 1869, which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, was a Friday when two stock manipulators tried to corner the gold market and caused its collapse.
The online dictionary goes on to point out that the adjective "black" was then used on similar occasions -- on Tuesday October 19, 1929 when the stock market crashed, causing the Great Depression, and Black Monday of October 19, 1987, when the market crashed again.
But the term came to be tied to retail around the middle of the 20th century, according to articles found by Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a member of American Dialect Society.
Taylor-Blake found the day after Thanksgiving referred to as "Black Friday" in an article from a 1951 edition of "Factory Management and Maintenance," due to the high level of worker absenteeism on that day.
She also posted, on the Society's listserve, a 1961 article from Public Relations News, saying Philadelphia police officers were using the term "Black Friday" in connection to the day after Thanksgiving due to the downtown traffic jams resulting from the rush of holiday shoppers.
Taylor-Blake could not immediately be reached.
Yet Grant Barrett, vice president of the American Dialect Society, said it was common for meanings to migrate over the course of years, even from negative connotations to more positive ones.
"It's the nature of language. Things are borrowed in and out of groups," said Barrett, who also produces a national radio show called "A Way with Words."
"In this particular case, I think it's a natural thing for this day of special behavior to have a label. I think Black Friday fills a lexical hole," he said. "It does a job that needed doing."
(Reporting by Martinne Geller in New York, editing by Bernard Orr)
Corrects name in paragraph 14 to Grant instead of Garrett