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赤字 and 黒字 seem to correspond directly to the English expressions 'red ink' and 'black ink', meaning a (financial) deficit/loss and surplus, respectively. If Wiktionary is to be trusted, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean use 赤字 in the same way. Furthermore, French has the expression être dans le rouge ('to be in the red').

Etymonline lists the first recorded instance of 'red ink' in English as being from 1929, and 語源由来辞典 asserts that 赤字 and 黒字 spread in Japanese during the 大正時代 (1912-1926) to the start of 昭和時代 (1926-1989).

How did 赤字 and 黒字 come to be used in Japanese? Are the terms borrowed from a European language (or vice versa), or did the practice of using red ink for losses and black ink for profits arise independently?

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Maybe due to the massive losses from the US 1929 stock market crash, and the storied "stockbrokers jumping out of windows"? – user3169 Apr 7 '13 at 1:50
Maybe :) I don't have access to the Oxford English Dictionary at present, but there might be more information to be found there. Etymonline tends to match with what's in the OED. – Quppa Apr 7 '13 at 1:59
Here's another link that possibly points to the 1929 stock market crash as being somewhat related to this sort of usage. (Linked page is in Shift_JIS encoding.) – summea Apr 7 '13 at 2:32
In the red appeared in English in print in 1926 and is probably older, so user3169's speculation is not correct. (The OED gives the same cite, and 1928 for in the black.) – snailplane Apr 7 '13 at 3:15
@snailplane Oh well, it sounded good. Good thing I phrased it as a question. Anyway, check (barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/…) under "Google Books - Campbell’s Actual Accounting" which is a reference from 1911. My idea is that Japanese usage was borrowed/transferred from English due to western influence in the early 20th century. – user3169 Apr 7 '13 at 5:02

In bookkeeping, losses were written in red. Gains were written in black.

This starts from this.

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