The term man Friday denotes an efficient and devoted male servant or personal assistant.
It alludes to the name of Robinson Crusoe’s servant in The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself (London, 1719), by the English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731).
On several occasions in the novel, Robinson Crusoe refers to his servant (whom he named after “the Day [he] sav’d his Life”) as my man Friday—for example:
– By this I understood, that my Man Friday had formerly been among the Savages, who used to come on Shore on the farther Part of the Island […].
– This Observation of mine put a great many Thoughts into me, which made me at first not so easy about my new Man Friday as I was before […].
– I was fast asleep in my Hutch one Morning, when my Man Friday came running in to me, and call’d aloud, Master, Master, they are come, they are come.
In the course of the 18th century, the term man Friday gained currency in relation to Robinson Crusoe. For example, The Massachusetts Mercury (Boston, Massachusetts) of Friday 10th March 1797 announced that would be presented at the Hay-Market Theatre
the celebrated historic, serious Pantomime of Robinson Crusoe; And his Man Friday.
The American author Jane Goodwin Austin (1831-94) used girl Friday as a female equivalent of man Friday in Will Crusoe and his Girl Friday, a short story published in Our Young Folks. An Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls (Boston, Massachusetts) of November 1867—at the beginning of this Robinsonade, two children, Will and Sue, have just finished reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Will suggests to Sue that they run away “so as to be like Robinson”:
“If I’m Robinson, you must be the man Friday, of course.”
“But I ain’t a man,” objected Sue.
“Well, then, you shall be a girl Friday, and instead of Robinson I ’ll be Will Crusoe.”
The earliest generic use of man Friday that I have found is from Rutledge’s Letters. No. VII, published in the Republican Watch-Tower (New York City, N.Y.) of Saturday 18th December 1802. John Rutledge (1766-1819), South Carolina’s Member of Congress, had been accused of writing two letters to the President of the United States, urging the “displacement” of all the Federalists in Rhode Island. The article describes Cleland Kinlock as “the bosom friend of Rutledge” and contains:
Rutledge and his friend Kinlock cut a sorry figure. […] Rutledge, and his man Friday, very ingenuously endeavour to turn the question [&c.].
The second-earliest occurrence of man Friday that I have found is from a letter by ‘A Mechanic’, published in The Albany Register (Albany, N.Y.) of Tuesday 15th February 1803—the author was criticising another newspaper, the Albany Centinel, for not treating a particular subject:
I have long been an admirer of the matter which forms the contents of the paper published by these Editors […]. On this occasion, however, I have been disappointed: I expected they would have commenced the Herculean labor of filling at least half a column of their paper with their shrewd and highly-wrought ideas upon the subject; and that even their man Friday, the Poetaster, would be induced to raise the dismal strain of his New Year’s Address once more, to which even the owls might listen with rapture.
Coined on the pattern of man Friday, the term girl Friday designates a female employee who has a wide range of duties, usually including secretarial and clerical work.
There is an error in the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition – 2008). The earliest instance of girl Friday that this dictionary has recorded is from Ex-East Sider Becomes Countess, published in The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah) of Saturday 28th January 1928:
New York, Jan. 28.—(By The Associated Press.)—A former East side girl Friday became a member of a Sardinian noble family that traces its descent back to the Crusades. Mrs. Walter Goldbeck, widow of the portrait painter, married Paul Mance De Mores, Count of Vallombrosa.
The countess, whose age was given as 27, was formerly Angelo Obre Brower, whose father is said to have been an electrician.
In fact, “A former East side girl Friday became a member of a Sardinian noble family” is to be understood as “A former East side girl, Friday, became a member of a Sardinian noble family”. In other words, this “girl”, formerly living on New York’s East Side, married Paul Mance De Mores on Friday 27th January 1928 (this is corroborated by an article on the same subject, published in The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) of Saturday 28th January 1928).
The earliest generic use of girl Friday that I have found occurs as the title of a play, My Girl Friday, which opened at the Republic Theatre, New York City, N.Y., on Tuesday 12th February 1929. Among the critics who lambasted this play, Burns Mantle wrote the following in “My Girl Friday” Should Be Funny: Everything Is Set for Great Hilarity That Doesn’t Come Off, published in the Daily News (New York City, N.Y.) of Wednesday 13th February 1929:
“My Girl Friday” is a farce that should be funny, but isn’t. Not very.
Let the author tell the scheme of it to you and I’ll wager you would assure him he had hit upon a set of sure-fire farcical situations.
As for instance:
Harvey Travers, a man-about-forty, amuses himself by buying an interest in various musical comedies.
This gives him an excuse to meet the girls and watch the rehearsals; to give parties and acquire a binge; to entertain his visiting clients and forget his wife.
Such a party he organizes for Albert Whelan, his Buffalo partner. And leaves word with the stage manager of his newest show to send down three maids from the ensemble.
The girls arrive, under protest; the arrangements for the evening are confirmed; whoopee is about to be made when all the men guests suddenly go under the table.
The chief of the visiting ladies has put dope in their wine. Now she puts filmy underwear in their beds. And then the girls go swimming.
Next day remorseful and hazy men; indignant and demanding girls. Having, they say, been promised everything from marriage to retirement, the girls insist upon settlements.
The men, unable to remember anything that has happened, are powerless to protest.
In the same review, Burns Mantle explained the title of the play:
The piece was once known as “Undressed Kid.” “My Girl Friday” is tacked on as a nickname for one of the chorus girls.
It seems that the American gossip columnist Walter Winchell (1897-1972) popularised the term girl Friday in the 1930s because he occasionally attributed the authorship of his column On Broadway to his secretary. The earliest instance of this that I have found is from The New Orleans Item (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Thursday 21st January 1932; the title of the column was:
The subtitle and the first line were:
A Columnist’s Sec’y Jots Down a Few Notes
Dear W. W.:—Whew! . . . It’s stifling here . . . [&c.].
And the signature was:
Your Girl Friday.
Walter Winchell’s influence on the usage of the term girl Friday is clear in the following passage from Girl Reporter Goes Back Stage to Get Intimate Glimpse of Preparations, by ‘the Girl Reporter’, published in The Herald (Dayton, Ohio) of Thursday 28th July 1932—the Herald Opportunity revue was an amateur contest organised by that newspaper:
“Walter Winchelling” for a half hour before the first number goes on at Keith’s gives one the dawning that The Herald Opportunity revue is exactly what it was cracked-up to be from the standpoint of the girl tappers, singers, and stunters who have become chorus girls for one week.
In Dressing Rooms.
Open the door and everyone spun around.
“Who d’ ya think ya are, Walter Winchell?” said one with every ear mark of a born chorus girl […].
“No, his girl Friday,” we come back.
Inspired by Walter Winchell, the 1932 American feature film Is My Face Red? portrays a gossip columnist interpreted by Ricardo Cortez (Jacob Krantz – 1900-77). In the review of this film, published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) of Sunday 7th August 1932, Emma Keats wrote:
Like Winchell and “his girl Friday” Cortez has an able young secretary in the person of Arline Judge.
Walter Winchell used the term in his column On Broadway, published in The Morning Post (Camden, New Jersey) of Tuesday 22nd November 1932:
George Quigley, Jr., son of the Warner vice-prez, and Marie McGrath, his Girl Friday, will blend soon.