Perhaps you’ve heard this widely told story. Heck, maybe you’ve even repeated it yourself: a Black Friday origin yarn that hearkens back to the days when bookkeepers recorded losses in red ink and profits in black ink.

Full-time University of North Carolina neuroscientist and part-time word sleuth Bonnie Taylor Blake had also heard this story — and didn’t buy it. So she dove deep into the historical record – combing newspapers and trade magazines - to get to the bottom of it.

"… And discovered that the whole red-ink-to-black-ink explanation didn’t hold water," Blake said. "That explanation doesn’t show up until the early 1980s."

That the apocryphal genesis story endures does make a certain amount of sense. After all, the tradition of shopping on what we today call Black Friday does indeed go back to the days of hand-kept ledgers.

"The historical record suggests that Black Friday, as an opening day for holiday shopping, that really dates back actually to the 1930s," said WGBH News contributor Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard business school. Thanksgiving had been celebrated across America on the last Thursday of November since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln made one of his less famous proclamations.

By the turn of the 20th century, retail in America had come of age, and the Christmas shopping season was already a linchpin of the economy. In the 1930s, like most decades, a few Novembers had five Thursdays, and retailers began urging President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to move up the date to the fourth Thursday. An idea that, in a depression, FDR got behind.

"So it was very consciously intended to be this runway into Christmas and it would therefore — Friday and then Saturday would become the kickoff days for the holiday season," Koehn said.

It worked, and by the 1950s, traffic and bustle downtown that Friday in Philadelphia, then America’s third largest city, was creating major headaches. That’s where Blake says the real story begins.

"Police had given that shopping day the name Black Friday, humorously, sort of derisively to say it’s a bad day for police because they're having to deal with this flood of downtown shoppers, all the police force had to come in, there were 12-hour shifts, it was sort of a day of woe," she said.

The phrase struck a chord with the public who quickly embraced it. Though not everyone was pleased with its increasingly widespread use.

"Merchants were really unhappy with the name and the attempt was made to switch the name to “big” Friday, and we obviously know that didn’t work," Blake said.

Blake says that as the term spread from the Philly area through the 1980s, so too did the mythical red-to-black-ink story, a clever “if you can’t beat them, join them” tactic by retailers.

"We’re stuck with Black Friday, so let's see if we can put a positive spin on it and give the consumer a different explanation for how the name came to be," she said.

Koehn says that by the 1990s Black Friday had gone national. Deep, targeted discounts and huge crowds came in the early 2000s; predawn openings in the late 2000s. This year, Koehn says she’s eyeing an interesting play by outdoor-retailer REI. While their stores will be closed this Black Friday, online they prominently note that “The outdoors, and the website, are always open,” complete with the social-media-ready hashtag #OptOutside.

"This pivot that’s getting stronger in regard to online shopping could really end up changing Black Friday," Koehn said. "Not over the next year or two but over the next five or six years. And how exactly that might change and how the savvy retailers will play that is an open question."

A question that you will help start to answer by how you choose to spend — or not spend — your hard earned money this Black Friday.

A Black Friday Timeline

1869: On Friday September 24, two speculators — Jay Gould and James Fisk — tried to corner the gold market on the New York Stock Exchange, inciting a crash. The day became widely known as "Black Friday."

1885: A Letter to the Editor in The Boston Globe notes that prior to 1869, "Black Friday" was known to refer to Dec. 6, 1745, when tradition held that Bonnie Prince Charlie's army crossed Swarkestone Bridge in Derbyshire during England's Jacobite rising.

20th Century: It was common for any Friday the 13th to be referred to as "Black Friday." A May, 1941 article in the Boston Globe about an area girl celebrating her 13th birthday on Friday the 13th with a party attended by 13 girls and 13 boys is headlined "'Black' Friday Holds No Fears for Kathleen, 13."

1951: The earliest known instance of the term "Black Friday" in reference to the day after Thanksgiving appears in the trade magazine Factory Management and Maintenance. Here, it's used derisively to describe that Friday as a day when worker absenteeism was rampant. Bonnie Taylor Blake says there is no evidence that there was particularly widespread use of the term in this way.

1961: The earliest known appearance of the term "Black Friday" in reference to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving appears in a Rochester, N.Y., newspaper. Blake says the evidence suggests that the term was already in use in Philadelphia by that time.

1961: A Philadelphia public-relations newsletter reports on an effort by merchants in the city to "rehabilitate" the term "Black Friday." The newsletter notes that Philadelphia police had coined the term. Blake says the fact that merchants were trying to rehabilitate the term suggests it was both widespread and firmly in place well before 1961.

1981: The first known "red-ink-to-black-ink" explanation appears in a Philadelphia Inquirer article.

1992: One of the earliest Boston-area appearances in print of the term "Black Friday" as it's currently used shows up in the "Ask the Globe" section of The Boston Globe. A reader writes, "Why is it that some New Yorkers refer to the day after Thanksgiving as 'Black Friday?'" The answer given, citing the Knight Ridder/Tribune news service suggests roots in Philadelphia and propagates the "red-to-black-ink" myth.