a few carefully selected thoughts about the word “random”


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.

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4 Responses to a few carefully selected thoughts about the word “random”

  1. Meghan says:

    hi my name is meghan, and ive been using the word random improperly for 12+ years…

  2. Tori says:

    “uh..tribal sovereignty means that it’s sovereign. it’s..you’re a….you’re a…you’ve been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.”

    wow. i think i got the gist of your thoughts about random just by hearing that. if i sound that clueless when i say “random”, then i might start using it the right way, shooooot!

  3. greenchet says:

    I get the point you’re making, but perhaps the students are expressing an artistic side rather than a “lack of a scientific” side. Perhaps the students know exactly what random means, and are using the meaning to convey how “absurd” or out of place the event seemed. As you defined it, random designates behavior without any discernable pattern behind it. I think the students may in fact grasp the definition of random, and USE the word to take a linguistic shortcut. Consider the following exchange:
    Mike: So did you catch that game last night?
    Tom: Do you ever think about what it would be like to be a secret alien ambassador?
    Mike: Dude, your comments can be so random sometimes.
    Versus –
    Mike: How bout that take home we got in docdlp’s class?
    Tom: Sometimes my Father’s lack of interest in activities/subjects I enjoy really chips away at my feelings of self-worth.
    Mike: Dude, I find the comments that come out of your mouth sometimes to be so to truly out of left field, that I have to sit and ponder for a second if there is a discernable pattern to your thoughts and ideas. 100% of the time, I find that there is some pattern to your thoughts, but still the fact that I even consider randomness to be a potential explanation seems significant to me in some way.
    I find the first example a little more of an easy pill to swallow linguistically.

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