Here’s the first definition of the adjective “random” I found in my trusty old 1977 edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “lacking a definite plan, purpose, or pattern.” The Oxford American dictionary defines “random” as “made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision” (cf. “at random”: “without method or conscious decision: he opened the book at random”).
As a college professor I’ve spent the past dozen or so years surrounded by 18-22 year olds and I’ve noticed a trend with this word. I hear things like “the professor assigned all these random books” or “there were all these random people at the party I’d never met before” or “she spilled her purse and all sorts of random things fell out.” At some point in the past several years the general usage appears to have shifted; now people use “random” to mean something quite different from its denotative meaning. Many students of mine seem to believe that the word means “weird,” “unexpected,” or (worst of all, in my opinion) “confusing.”
But, see, here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually mean any of those things. It means “made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision.” See the difference? I think it’s unlikely that a professor designing a syllabus chooses a reading list for a class “at random.” Now, if s/he wandered into a library blindfolded and arbitrarily began pulling one book from every row of shelves, that would be a random selection process. I suppose it’s possible that the organizer of the party where “random” people showed just up flipped through the student directory and blindly stabbed a finger at each page then invited whoever the finger happened to point to. But I kinda doubt that’s what happened. And I’ll bet that the poor thing who spilled her purse consciously chose each of the items in she put in there.
Things that are consciously chosen according to a definite plan, purpose, or pattern are not random. Even if you don’t know what that plan, purpose, or pattern is.
And before anyone gives me the whole “language evolves” speech, yeah yeah yeah, I know. But sometimes words mean things and people risk confusing matters or making fools of themselves if they don’t bother to know what the words they use actually mean.
Ask Alanis Morrisette if she’s heard any criticism over her use of the word “ironic” in that song of hers.
Ask George Bush to define the word “sovereign.”
Ask Loretta Lynn what is meant by the term “horny.” (scroll to 7:20)
So why am I bothered by this? Because I think it’s a symptom of a more troubling problem: an anti-intellectual tendency to dismiss things not immediately understood. It’s so much easier to label items, ideas, or people “random” than it is to expend a bit of mental energy on figuring out what they might have in common or why they’ve been chosen. Why try to figure something out if it’s not self-evident? The failure to think about stuff in any systematic or scientific way makes it easier to pretend that things are beyond your control, beyond your understanding, and/or beyond your realm of concern. Dismissing things as “random” when someone somewhere actually made conscious decisions about what to include and exclude is an abdication of intellectual ability and, perhaps even, human responsibility. It’s a secular way of saying “I’m too lazy to be bothered with thinking about why things are the way they are.” And I think that’s a problem.
I’ve got no problem with “random” itself. Random can be fun. Here are a few “random” websites, i.e. websites that employ random selection in its true sense–websites that I’ve consciously selected with a specific plan, purpose, and pattern in mind.
Random Word Generator: http://watchout4snakes.com/CreativityTools/RandomWord/RandomWord.aspx
Random Name Generator: http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm
Random Quotations: http://www.quotationspage.com/random.php3
You can also visit http://www.random.org/ and waste several hours doing random things.