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Let's Look At The Language

December 18, 2010

America's Christmas season influencing other languages

For those of us immersed in preparations for Christmas, the one week remaining feels insufficiently brief, and the three weeks since Thanksgiving seem more like three days. As fleeting as time is between Turkey Day and Dec. 25, we in the U.S. possess a peculiarly American interpretation of when the Christmas season "begins."

My British friend Dan pointed this out to me several years ago when he noted that in the U.K., the onset of Yuletide planning and purchasing is quite vague in contrast to the commercially significant Thanksgiving weekend in the States.

It's true -- no matter how many Americans get a jump-start on Christmas before the fourth Thursday in November, most of us don't start thinking about it in earnest until there's nothing but a meatless carcass on the Thanksgiving platter.

For a very long time, U.S. businesses have made it their business to ensure that we waste no time in our transition from turkey feast to spending spree.

Since the 1920s, Thanksgiving Day parades, like the familiar Macy's extravaganza, have had relatively little to do with Thanksgiving and nearly everything to do with ushering in the Christmas season.

So captivated are we by the tradition of Macy's parade concluding with the official Christmas-signaling appearance of Santa Claus himself, that over the past six decades, movie, radio, television, and stage producers have given us no fewer than eight versions of Valentine Davies' "Miracle on 34th Street."

More than 40 years ago, the commercial exploitation of post-Thanksgiving shopping gave rise to a new meaning (and now the primary American meaning) of the term "Black Friday."

Indeed, in the New Oxford American Dictionary, "Black Friday" is defined as "1) the day after Thanksgiving, noted as the first day of traditional Christmas shopping, during which crowds of consumers are drawn to special offers by retailers. 2) September 24, 1869. On this date, an attempt by a few speculators to corner the U.S. gold market was thwarted when President Ulysses S. Grant released government gold for sale, making gold prices plummet and creating a panic in the stock market." (Apparently, in America, shopping trumps panicking.)

In the U.K.'s Oxford Dictionary of English, there is no entry for "Black Friday," though it would not be surprising if the term (in its "day after Thanksgiving" sense) were to appear in a future edition. Some of my British colleagues have told me that Amazon's U.K. website is now promoting Black Friday sales in the British market.

That says a lot about the commercial potency of Black Friday -- imagine a marketing scheme based on the day after a holiday that doesn't even exist for the targeted consumers.

A much newer term to enter the lexicon of consumerism is "Cyber Monday," reportedly coined in 2005. As most Americans already know, Cyber Monday is the Monday following Black Friday, and is the "more civilized" alternative to facing the frenzy of Friday's traffic, long lines, and those wee-hour sale times that have become ridiculously competitive.

Anyone who has ever done any online shopping invariably woke up Monday, Nov. 29, to several e-mails promoting Cyber Monday online specials.

I, for one, stayed home on Black Friday and overlooked Cyber Monday in favor of the following day, in which I imagined all the useless, unnecessary, extravagant gifts I wanted to buy and waited for them to magically appear. I called it "Telepathic Tuesday."

You know, I waited all day and night and nothing appeared, but as sales go, it was terrific. I saved so much money on Christmas shopping that I think I'll make it an annual tradition.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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