Why is Black Friday called Black Friday?

It is thought that the mega-shopping day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday because shops go from being in the red (having a net loss) to in the black (having profits). However, that’s not the origin of the term. Linguist Ben Zimmer explains in this Visual Thesaurus article that the name is not directly related to shopping, but rather a much disliked side effect of the frenzy: traffic. In the 1960s, police officers in Philadelphia started calling the Friday after Thanksgiving Black Friday because they so dreaded the traffic jams and related problems the shopping caused.

The name stuck. But local merchants reasonably didn’t like the negative connotation given to one of their most prosperous days, so they pushed to rename the day Big Friday. Unfortunately for them, their efforts were in vain, and we’re left with Black Friday.

Using the color black in a negative connotation is hardly new. Ancient Greeks considered it to be the color of the underworld. Romans used it as the color to identify mourning. As language progressed, the color has been used with seemingly harmless words to alter their meaning in a negative way.

Consider these terms:

black sheep: a disfavored or disreputable member of a group

black list: a list of persons who are disapproved of or are to be punished or boycotted

black humor: humor marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes

black market: trading activity in violation of public regulations

blackmail: extortion of money or anything of value by threats

(definitions from Merriam-Webster)

Can you think of any others? Let me know in the comments section.

Severe weather etymology

I have previously written about the etymology of tsunami. Today we are delving into the history of words for other serious weather systems.

Note: I received all my information from the Online Etymology Dictionary—an amazing, exhaustive resource that I strongly encourage you to check out.

The first citation of blizzard comes from 1859, though it gained popularity after a particularly hard winter in the United States during 1880. It is believed that the word is onomatopœic. In addition, in the 1770s, American English used the word blizz to mean a “violent rainstorm.” It came to be used to mean a winter storm thanks to people in the Upper Midwest of the United States.

Hurricane entered the English language in the 1550s from the Spanish word huracan. However, it took time (as is usual) for the spelling to become standardized. In the late sixteenth century, there were 39 recorded spellings, including forcane, herrycano, harrycaine, and hurlecane.

Tornado began in the 1550s, when it meant a “violent, windy thunderstorm.” It probably came from the Spanish word for “thunderstorm,” tronada. Tornado came to mean an “extremely violent whirlwind” in the 1620s.

In the 1550s, typhoon in English was spelled tiphon, coming from the Greek word typhon, which means “whirlwind.” During this time, it meant a “violent storm, whirlwind, tornado.” In the 1580s, it took on the meaning of a “cyclone, violent hurricane of India or the China Seas” after a translation of an Italian story of a voyage to the East Indies in which the author encountered a touffon.


During last week’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden dropped some old man slang on the world when he called fellow candidate Paul Ryan’s response malarkey.

In case you don’t know, here’s how Merriam-Webster defines malarkey: “insincere or foolish talk.”

“Your grandma smells like pickled beets!” Morris yelled.
“No, she doesn’t,” Walter interjected. “That’s malarkey.”

“Well, I think your grandma drinks blood,” Walter said snidely.
“No way. That’s malarkey!” Morris cried.

“What you just said was malarkey,” Walter responded.
“That’s malarkey that you think what I just said was malarkey.” Morris replied.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, we don’t know the origin of malarkey. But we do know that it entered American English in the mid-1920s. It’s also a surname, which makes me think some guy with the last name Malarkey was quite the storyteller in the mid-1920s.

As if malarkey weren’t good enough, there are other old-timey words that have the same meaning. Toss one of these nouns at the next fibber you come across:




















Happy birthday, Grammar Party!

I’m rather excited today because January 10, 2012, is Grammar Party’s first birthday. Like any proper one year old, Grammar Party will spend the day eating lots of birthday cake and promptly throwing it up all over itself.

So before I get on with cleaning sick up, I wanted to share with you some of the blog’s most popular posts of its first year, in case you happened to miss them or you just loved them so much that you wanted another look.

Baseball slang is in my wheelhouse

Yo mama’s so fat a hyperbole couldn’t even exaggerate her weight

A guide to mass nouns

The dos and don’ts of “dos and don’ts”

Than versus Then

Frequently misused words: irony, ironic, ironically

Ye old mispronunciation: the long forgotten letter “thorn”

Like, is this the return of Valspeak?

Portmanteaus: they’re a bash!

Eggcorns and nauseum: the hilarious effects of turns of phrase

And to make sure Grammar Party’s year two (and beyond) brings you more of the super awesome language posts you love, I would really appreciate it if you could take this poll. I want to know what you like best about Grammar Party and what you don’t like so much. Feel free to choose more than one option, and if you want to share what you’d like to see less of, I welcome your comments.


Thanks so much for making year one such a wonderful experience. I’d love to give you all a big smooch on the cheek, but my face is already covered in cake.

Your friendly word nerd,



A (snarky) Word Of The Year roundup

There is a narrow spectrum of occasions that really get word nerds excited. And one of them is the year-end lists of Words Of The Year (or WOTY as we like to call it, while we push the brims of our glasses up our collective noses).

What do 2011’s Words Of The Year say about this trip around the sun? Basically, it sucked. Between social unrest and the global economy tanking, I’m surprised anyone was able to poke themselves out of the doom and gloom to think about words. But somehow the lexicographical powers that be did, and the resulting lists reveal just what sourpusses we have been.

Here are 2011’s Words Of The Year. Enjoy (or not, as that would be more fitting).

eurozone: With the debt crisis spreading across Europe this year, it’s not surprising that Financial News chose this word as its WOTY. The article cites that media database Factiva recorded the word appeared almost three times more in 2011 than in 2010.

Read more at: http://www.efinancialnews.com/story/2011-12-23/words-of-the-year-eurozone-dominates-headlines

occupy: I thought occupy would surely top nearly every WOTY list. I was wrong (and it’s not the first time). Thankfully, The Global Language Monitor thought it worthy of topping their list. Though it’s by no means a new word (Occupy has been in use since the mid-fourteenth century.), the Occupy Wall Street movement breathed new life into it. All of a sudden, people were occupying everything, from cities across the globe to this guy, who asked his girlfriend to “occupy his life”:


Read more at: http://www.languagemonitor.com/global-english/top-words-of-2011/

pragmatic: This is Merriam-Webster’s winner for WOTY. It means “practical as opposed to idealistic.” The dictionary writers say that pragmatic had an “unprecedented number” of searches on their site. But whether that means this is a good choice or that people simply don’t have a good vocabulary is unclear. Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, has a brighter view of humanity. He says, “It’s a word that resonates with society as a whole; something people want to understand fully.”

Read more at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/2011words.htm

squeezed middle: This is a term mostly used in Britain. And, since I’m not British, here’s a quote from the Oxford Dictionaries’ post about the word to explain it: “Interestingly, ‘squeezed middle,’ Ed Miliband’s term for those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens whilst having the least with which to relieve it, operates slightly differently. It is a label that those affected are opting into rather than having directed against them, and perhaps therein lies its strength. The speed with which it has taken root, and the likelihood of its endurance while anxieties deepen, made it a good candidate for Word of the Year.”

Read more at: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/squeezed-middle/

tergiversate: Haven’t heard of this one? Yeah, me either. But it was Dictionary.com’s selection for this year. Pronounced “ter-JIV-er-sate,” it means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to subject, etc.” Anyone paying attention to Republican primary frontrunners will quickly realize why this was Dictionary.com’s choice. The site also explains that “the stock market, politicians, and even public opinion polls have tergiversated all year long.”

Read more at: http://hotword.dictionary.com/tergiversate/

Year in slang
Luckily, in the pauses between our crying jags, we did come up with some interesting slang words. Here are the ones that have met end-of-the-year fanfare. (Thanks to the fine fun folks at Urban Dictionary for the definitions and examples.)

bunga bunga: an orgy; the term was popularized by the media after Silvio Berlusconi, [former] Prime Minister of Italy, was accused of having sex with an underage girl at one of said parties.

Silvio Berlusconi will perform some statutory rape at tonight’s bunga bunga party!

humblebrag: Subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or “woe is me” gloss.

Uggggh just ate about fifteen piece of chocolate gotta learn to control myself when flying first class or they’ll cancel my modelling contract LOL :p

Fracking: A new way of extracting oil from shale deposits via hydraulic fracturing. Unfortunately whoever came up with the name never saw Battlestar Galactica.

Have you heard about the fracking they’re doing for oil? I don’t think prices are high enough for me to start fracking people for it.

[Note: Frack is the inventive workaround the writers of the supremely awesome sci-fi show, Battlestar Galactica, (the remake, not the original) used to mean fuck.]

planking: The art of planking is to lay horizontally across any object or the ground with their arms by their sides, aiming to occur in daring situations or a brotherly display of core-strength.

Look at that madman planking that parking meter!

In case you haven’t witnessed this craze personally, here’s a video demonstration:


Tebowing: To get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.

I was in the middle of Times Square and I saw a girl Tebowing in the street. She almost got squashed.

[This slang term is named after the supremely annoying Denver Bronco’s quarterback, Tim Tebow. Of course, the internets spawned this amazing website to honor this practice.]

And how could we forget . . .