Language Pulsations: Random

While at a Habitat for Humanity build one weekend, we noticed tinkly Christmas music wafting over the neighborhood and into the work site. We looked up from our digging and saw that the sound was emanating from a mostly unmarked white van making the rounds. “An ice cream truck playing Christmas music? In March? That’s random,” we mused.

Later, while scrolling through a newly-Friended Friend’s profile pictures on Facebook, I came upon a photo of my new Friend cradling a guinea pig in his arms. Someone had commented, “you are so random and I love it.” And, in the cafeteria, I overhear someone muttering, “What a rando he was…”

As Urban Dictionary user Pip writes, “random is the latest buzzword” among teenagers. There truly is an infinite number of different situations that demand the label “random.” Wore two different-colored socks? Random! Ate cottage pie for dinner? Random! Wrote a column about the word random? Random! “Random” can even have a positive connotation, as the enthused Facebook comment suggests. Or it can have a negative connotation, as the volunteer’s statement showed.

A totally random dog OMG!!

Yet none of this is inherent in the definition of the word; the Oxford English dictionary defines “random” as

Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.

With a little thought, the aforementioned, so-called random occurrences can easily be explained away as not being “haphazard” or “unpredictable” but rather caused by a very predictable set of circumstances. Is it really “random” that, in the southeast quadrant of D.C., one would see a sketchy “ice cream truck” playing cheap Christmas tunes to keep up pretenses? Or that a Facebook profile picture might feature a small domesticated animal that can be found in many households throughout America? (My household at one point had three guinea pigs.)

Our normal understanding of random has to do with statistics and probability. For instance, uses atmospheric noise in order to offer “true random numbers to anyone on the Internet.” White noise and entropy and radioactive decay are random. Dice, shuffling cards, and roulette wheels are all designed to produce randomness. In other words, “random” means “governed by or involving equal chances for each of the actual or hypothetical members of a set.” Screaming “monkey cheese” in the middle of an ultimate frisbee game is not random in this sense, so why are we so eager to call it “random”?

True randomness

According to the OED, the word gained its statistical, probabilistic sense in the late 19th century when the maths and sciences adopted the word as a technical term. As time passed, new sub-disciplines of mathematics, such as statistics and computer science, maintained “random” as a crucial bit of jargon.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, when young, up-and-coming Silicon Valley computing professionals regularly encountered and utilized terms such as “random access” and “random distribution.” Computing entrepreneur Carl Rosendahl explains the importance of computer jargon in episode #1 of the Story of English (a documentary filmed in 1986; watch the clip, as it is hilariously out of date). Computer programming, he explains, “is a very complex business, so we have our own language that we use in-house  for getting ideas across more efficiently.” He rattles off a stream of new-fangled jibber-jabber such as “online,” “hardware,” “interface,” “high-res,” and “read-only memory.” Rosendahl goes on to explain that amongst programmers these terms

now refer to more than just computers and their programs but also tangible and intangible objects… If you get up in the morning and you’re not feeling very good, you might say I feel really low-res, versus high-res, real sharp and ready to go.

Obviously his usage of “high-res” did not gain currency, but the colloquial usage of “random” did thanks to these computing nerds. By the 1970s, “random” gained a meaning of “peculiar, strange, nonsensical, unexpected”; in other words, it acquired a negative connotation that was not connected to its technical, mathematical meaning.

This usage, like many of California’s linguistic innovations (Val girl speech, uptalk, surfer lingo, etc.), inevitably filtered its way into the speech habits of all the hip youth of America. As a 1988 issue of the NY Times magazine helpfully noted, “‘This really random guy’ would not be a flattering way of describing a new acquaintance.”

Yet this is not the whole story of “random.” A crucial part of the contemporary appeal of “random” is using it “ironically.” Hipsters, the epithet that refers to today’s more or less fashionable subculture, feed on an idiosyncratic form of irony. Encylopedia Dramatica defines “hipster irony” as “a self-awareness of one’s behavior, insofar as that behavior is incongruent with what is expected and what actually occurs.” In the context of  hipster culture, calling something “random” that is not properly random is perfectly appropriate and actually, in this context, being or acting random is a positive trait.

That hipster's like totally random dude

Thanks to the geeks of Silicon Valley and the hipsters of Soho,”random” has enough traction to maintain its place as a sometimes despised but always productive colloquialism.


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