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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
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    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
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    @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
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Over the years, I've found Shogakukan's 国語大辞典【こくごだいじてん】 (KDJ) to be a good resource for etymologies and term dating. Their entry here at Kotobank lists a first citation in Japanese to 1929, roughly in line with the appearance of the term "in the red" in English, dated to 1926 in this Wiktionary entry.

The Japanese Wikipedia article on 黒字【くろじ】と赤字【あかじ】 lists a slightly later appearance in 1931, close enough to the KDJ for rough purposes. This article notes that the Japanese term may have arisen as follows (my explanatory addition [in square brackets]):

日本語【にほんご】の「赤字【あかじ】」「黒字【くろじ】」は、この西洋【せいよう】式【しき】簿記【ぼき】に直接【ちょくせつ】由来【ゆらい】するか、あるいは上記【じょうき】の西洋語【せいようご】からの借用【しゃくよう】と見【み】られる。
The Japanese terms "red figures" and "black figures" may be derived directly from this Western bookkeeping [writing income and gains in black, and expenditures and losses in red], or they may be borrowings from the aforementioned Western languages.

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

This starts from this.

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