Q&A: The origin of “sale”, “discount”, bargain” and “Black Friday”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're setting sale…

Q: Hi AWC, how long have we been having sales for?

A: What, us? Well, AWC doesn’t often do—

Q: No, not AWC. I mean “us” as in the English language!

A: Are you referring to half-price off all dictionaries?

Q: Okay, let me start again. How OLD is the word “SALE” and when did it begin to be used for a promotion of cheaper goods?

A: Ah! Gotcha. Well, the word is actually Scandinavian in origin – from “sala”.

Q: So, an IKEA sale?

A: Not Swedish – Norse actually.

Q: I Thor you might say that.

A: Groan. Using “sale” for the act of selling things is old, but it wasn’t until 1866 that “sale” was used for the selling of goods at LOWER prices than usual.

Q: Victorian times huh. Was that when getting a discount became a thing?

A: Yes, shopkeepers got rather savvy during this time. We’ve actually previously spoken about the origin of “dime a dozen” – which came from this era.

Q: Dozen surprise me.

A: Your pun game is strong today. Anyway, you mentioned “discount” – another common sale word. The original noun for a reduction due to early payment goes all the way back to the late 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 1830s that it was linked to a reduction in goods for sale.

Q: What about the verb “to discount”?

A: Well that verb does two jobs. The first is synonymous with “to disregard” – for example, “it’s easy to discount baseless fraud allegations without evidence”. That form dates back to 1702.

Q: And what about “I’m going to discount the price of these courses”?

A: That was a LOT later – not appearing until the 1970s!

Q: Wow, that is rather late. You’d think they would have been “slashing prices” far earlier than that.

A: Oh, they WERE. They just weren’t using that word. In fact, to “slash” a price is itself much earlier – first recorded in this sense in 1906.

Q: Hmmm, any other terms?

A: Do you “drive a hard bargain”?

Q: No, I drive a Toyota. It’s very economical.

A: Good to know. The phrase “drive a hard bargain” dates back to 1836, but it was really about trading, not discounts. This is because the word “bargain” came from French “bargaine” – a trade, deal or transaction.

Q: But what about “bargain” in a “40% off”, “what a bargain” kind of way?

A:  It didn’t get those vibes until 1899, and with it came the concept of the “bargain basement”.

Q: Oh yeah – “bargain basement prices”!

A: Named because originally department store basements were where the cheaper items were kept.

Q: That makes sense. So, what about Black Friday – where did that name come from?

A: Well let’s start back in Victorian times again with what it DOESN’T relate to – the lesser known, but still infamous Black Friday stock market crash of 1869.

Q: Hmmm… just three years after the first use of “sale”… Coincidence? I think not.

A: Um, anyway. Let’s now jump forward nearly a hundred years to the city of Philadelphia, USA. 

Q: Oh, where Tom Hanks is from!

A: Actually, he’s from California. You’re probably getting confused with the 1993 movie Philadelphia.

Q: Pffft, next you’ll tell me his soulmate isn’t called “Wilson!!!!”

A: Um, you’re thinking of the volleyball from the 2000 movie Castaway.

Q: What? Volleyball? No, I’m talking about his wife, Rita Wilson.

A: Oh. Wow. Um, okay. Sorry. Where were we?

Q: The streets of Philadelphia?

A: Ah yes. And they were congested streets in the 1960s, when a combo of post-Thanksgiving shopping, the hosting of the annual Army-Navy football game and start of holiday displays would result in huge crowds on that particular November Friday. As a result, traffic cops called it “Black Friday” due to the chaos and in anger at not being able to take time off.

Q: So it was named for big crowds, not big discounts?

A: Yep.

Q: But I thought it was named by shopkeepers who were “in the black”?

A: That definition has been retrofitted nicely now that businesses in America often make enough on Black Friday to put the “in the black” for the rest of the year. But the truth is that it wasn’t until the 1990s that this shopping phenomenon became more widespread. By the 2000s, it had become the biggest shopping day of the year.

Q: I have visions of people tackling each other to get that last Playstation 5.

A: Yes, that’s the one. It seems the behaviour of shoppers remains at low bargain basement levels.

Q: In fact, sometimes I feel like our language may have actually evolved more than our civilisation.

A: Yes, we wouldn’t discount that…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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