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That's So Random: The Evolution Of An Odd Word

Nov 30, 2012
Originally published on November 30, 2012 6:44 pm

Random is a fighting word for young Spencer Thompson. The comedian posted a video to a Facebook page entitled I Hate When People Misuse the Word Random.

"The word random is the most misused word of our generation — by far," he proclaims to a tittering audience of 20-somethings. "Like, girls will say, 'Oh, God, I met this random on the way home.' First of all, it's not a noun."

Or, Thompson continues, warming up, [they'll say,] " 'Oh, my God, we went to the most random party!' What? No! It was people at a house who decided to have a party, like, in your friend group."

But these uses of the word are not incorrect, according to Jesse Sheidlower. He's the elegant, purple-haired editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes several definitions of the word random.

"It's described as a colloquial term meaning peculiar, strange, nonsensical, unpredictable or inexplicable; unexpected," he explains, before adding that random started as a noun in the 14th century, meaning "impetuosity, great speed, force or violence in riding, running, striking, et cetera, chiefly in the phrase 'with great random.' "

Well, there's a phrase that deserves resurrection. Sheidlower says that in the 17th century, random started to mean "lacking a definite purpose."

"The specifically mathematical sense we have only from the late 19th century," he observes. "But that's with a highly technical definition — 'governed by or involving equal chances for each of the actual or hypothetical members of a population; also, produced or obtained by such a process and therefore unpredictable in detail.' "

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nerds seized on random in the 1960s as slang. One early example dates from 1971, in a jokey article in the MIT student newspaper calling students "randomized tools." Random as slang showed up in the Hacker's Dictionary, then went mainstream.

"It was in the movie Clueless in 1995, for example," Sheidlower points out. And he points out that Random House was established in 1925 specifically to publish books "at random," in the words of founder Bennett Cerf.

No discussion of random could be complete without a reminder that randomness is vital to life as we know it. That's according to Charlie McDonnell, the enthusiastic young Brit behind the Web series Fun Science.

The message: Life, like language, evolves.

"Every now and then -- at random -- you end up with something awesome," he burbles. "And this could be anything — like longer feathers, sharper teeth, bigger muscles, a giant brain, anything that can help life survive. And that is why I think randomness is so cool, because it is what gives awesome things the chance to happen."

How's that for a random way to end the week?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now for something completely random. We end the hour with NPR's Neda Ulaby and her report on the use and misuse of that word.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Of course, there's a Facebook page called "I Hate When People Misuse the Word Random" with a video by a young comedian named Spencer Thompson.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SPENCER THOMPSON: The word random is the most misused word of our generation by far.

ULABY: Here's his example.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

THOMPSON: Girls will say, oh, my God, I met this random on the way home. First of all, it's not a noun. I don't know how it became a thing.

ULABY: Thompson then delivers a scathing lexicographical lecture to people who talk like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

THOMPSON: Oh, my God, we went to the most random party. What? No. It was people at a house who decided to have a party, like in your friend group. It's not like you're just blindly throwing a dart at a map, OK, write that address down. We're going. Oh, my God, if there's a party happening there, it's going to be so random.

ULABY: I turned to the least random person imaginable for more clarification. Jesse Sheidlower is the elegant, purple-haired editor at large for the "Oxford English Dictionary." Random is in the OED, he says, with more than one definition.

JESSE SHEIDLOWER: And it's described as a colloquial term meaning, well, peculiar, strange, nonsensical, unpredictable or inexplicable, unexpected.

ULABY: So using random to mean odd or incoherent, says Sheidlower, is not incorrect. He says random started as a noun in the 14th century.

SHEIDLOWER: Meaning impetuosity, great speed, force or violence in riding, running, striking, et cetera, chiefly in the phrase "with great random."

ULABY: There's a phrase that deserves resurrection. Sheidlower says in the 17th century random started to mean "lacking a definite purpose," and the word continued to evolve with great random.

SHEIDLOWER: The specifically mathematical sense, we have only from the late 19th century, but that's with a highly technical definition: governed by or involving equal chances for each of the actual or hypothetical members of a population. Also, produced or obtained by such a process and therefore unpredictable in detail.

ULABY: Perhaps unsurprisingly, nerds seized on random as slang in the 1960s. The earliest example anyone's found is from 1971, in a jokey article in the MIT student newspaper that calls students randomized tools. Random as slang showed up in the "Hacker's Dictionary." Then it went mainstream.

SHEIDLOWER: It was in the movie "Clueless" in 1995, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLUELESS")

JUSTIN WALKER: (as Christian) Where's Tai?

ALICIA SILVERSTONE: (as Cher) Oh, she met some random guys at the Footlocker and escorted them right over there.

BRITTANY MURPHY: (as Tai) Oh, my God...

ULABY: Intellectually, random is meaningful as the genesis of the name Random House.

SHEIDLOWER: Random House was founded specifically with the intention of publishing books at random.

ULABY: Why not? We'll finish this piece up at great random with another random video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO "FUN SCIENCE")

CHARLIE MCDONNELL: It's time for me to be random again.

ULABY: Two sweet British geeks discussing randomness scientifically.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO "FUN SCIENCE")

MCDONNELL: One very important thing to bring up about randomness, though, is that it's actually completely vital to all life as we know it.

ULABY: Life, like language, evolves.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO "FUN SCIENCE")

MCDONNELL: But every now and then, at random, you end up with something awesome.

And this could be anything, you know, like longer feathers, sharper teeth, bigger muscles, a giant brain, anything that can help life survive.

And that is why I think randomness is so cool because it is what gives awesome things the chance to happen.

ULABY: How's that for a random way to end the week? Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.