Our Obsession with the Word "Random": Fear of a Millennial Planet

by Paul Hiebert

For a while now, something has been bothering me. It’s not particularly menacing or sinister, just annoying and unavoidable. It’s a word, and I see it in the comments section of YouTube videos and hear it from the mouths of guffawing teenage girls next to me on the subway. Sometimes it even makes an unwelcome appearance on my cell phone in the form of a text message. The word I’m talking about is random — and I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Facebook Groups have risen in opposition to this ubiquitous six-letter expression. There is “Irritated by the incorrect use of the word ‘random,’” “I HATE the word ‘random,’” “I HATE THE WORD RANDOM,” “Society against the overuse of the word ‘random,’” “Campaign against inappropriate use of the word ‘random,’” and “NOT RANDOM.”

Jackson Grant, a 27-year-old video producer from Australia, told me over the phone that he started “Australians against overuse of the word ‘random’” one day after a co-worker had responded to a joke by saying “How random!” Grant shivered a helpless shiver for the last time, and at lunch logged on to begin his protest.

This particular use of the word random has penetrated pop-culture so recklessly and so thoroughly that examples can be found in English-speaking markets all across the globe.

They include:

→ Quote from American rom-com, He’s Just Not That Into You: “I was delusional about that relationship. I used to refer to him as my husband to random people, like my dental hygienist.”

→ Title of New York Magazine online article: “Six Random Michael Jackson Pop-Culture Moments.”

→ Chorus line from British grime artist Lady Sovereign’s single “Random”: “Everybody get random/ Jus’ do sumfin random.”

→ Title of sketch-comedy series within Disney television show starring Demi Lovato, “Sonny With a Chance”: “So random!”

→ Quote from Australian mockumentary television show, “Summer Heights High”: “I’m not sitting next to some random emo!”

→ Quote from HBO’s “True Blood,” episode “Frenzy”: “A maenad, in Bon Temps? That’s random.”

→ Name of candy in the shape of several discrete objects such as bowties, sunglasses, and paintbrushes, from British company Rowntree’s: “Rowntree’s randoms.”

As an adjective, random is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as follows: “Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.” In other words, random is without pattern or objective; it’s perfectly unbiased. To judge by the pop-culture usages cited above, however, the word has shifted away from its traditional usage, and now means:

a) Inconsequential
b) Rare, strange, curated
c) Exciting, absurd, capricious
d) Unexpected, arbitrary, silly
e) Outcast, distasteful, unknown
f) Unlikely, unfeasible, impossible
g) Incongruous fun

Mark Davies, a professor of Corpus Linguistics at Brigham Young University, has created a computer database called The Corpus of Historical American English. The CoHA system searches over “400 million words of text of American English from 1810 to 2009” to “see how words, phrases and grammatical constructions have increased or decreased in frequency, how words have changed meaning over time, and how stylistic changes have taken place in the language.” It shows that random has grown in use each decade since the 1950s. Google’s Ngram book usage search shows similar results.

In 2003, Ken Ringle declared in the Washington Post that we are living in an age of random. He wondered when young people became “so overwhelmed by the randomness of the stimuli assaulting them that they selected ‘random’ as their adjective of choice.” He goes on:

Random is the flip side of that favorite slang term of post-World War II adolescent Americans: “neat.” “Neat” was the achievement (or at least appearance) of order and symmetry in one’s personal life equivalent to the butch haircuts, trimmed lawns and squared corners evanescent in 1950s public life. No loose ends left dangling. A well-tuned 1955 Chevrolet was “neat” in part because nothing about it had been left to chance.

It’s not 2003 anymore, and the age of random may be waning in 2011, but we are still living in its wake. So, what happened? How did we go from a culture of neat to a culture of random? What created this sense of chaos reigning over order? Should we blame globalization, postmodernism, the internet, or, possibly, just “Family Guy”?

* * *

I met with now-former New York Times “On Language” magazine columnist Ben Zimmer one afternoon at a coffee shop in SoHo to discuss the contemporary onslaught of perceived randomness. He is the executive producer of two language-related websites, a consultant for the OED, a graduate of linguistics from Yale, a member of the American Dialect Society and the Dictionary Society of North America, and is not a nerd, but a gentleman.

Zimmer describes the word random as a defuser of social tension, a kind of “all-purpose label” for anything out of the norm. “It has an intonation to it, a sing-song quality, so it becomes almost a refrain,” he said. “It’s interjected as a kind of meta-commentary on whatever is happening in the situation.”

Our conversation moved to etymology. When and where did random morph into these multiple new meanings?

Zimmer believes the change occurred among computer-science geeks from the late 1960s and early 1970s. In a column, “Creeper! Rando! Sketchball!.” he located one of the first colloquial uses of random in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s student newspaper, The Tech, from 1971. Here, the word random as an adjective meant “Peculiar, strange; nonsensical, unpredictable, or inexplicable; unexpected,” and as a noun meant “A person who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time, a person who is there by chance; a person who is not a member of a particular group; an outsider.”

After publication, he received emails corroborating his belief in random’s modern genesis. Michael Shull, a professor of Astrophysics at Colorado University, wrote that he remembers students using random in this fashion during his freshman year at Caltech in 1968. Shull said the word referred to “events that were out of the ordinary, obscure, even mysterious.” Zimmer received another email from a student who attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York around the same time, confirming the same usage at his school.

“There obviously must have been a big influence from the more technical meanings of random and randomness coming out of probability theories, statistics, and computing,” said Zimmer. “The triumph of kids at MIT and Caltech and geek culture in general might have helped spread it, but then if you think of someone like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, she would seem completely isolated from those cultural currents. So how do you get from one to the other? It’s hard to tell.”

There is no doubt that this usage of random has spread — and it has spread for a reason. The word’s meaning and function have merit; otherwise random wouldn’t have bridged the gap between computer hackers and Valley Girls with such success. Like neat before it, random is a word young people find accurate in describing their world. Something about it is true.

Just look at those popular Old Spice commercials featuring that shirtless, towel-clad Old Spice Guy. In what appears to be his final video, he says the advertising campaign must end because he’s too busy: “There’s giant oaks that need chainsawing into yacht boats, Bermuda Triangle mysteries that need solving with huge magnifying glasses, and everyone knows I could use one or twelve medals for winning exotic car-drawing competitions.” The clip ends with him catching a fish before exclaiming, “Silver fish hand catch.”

Or consider “South Park”’s critique of “Family Guy” in season 10’s two-part episode, “Cartoon Wars.” In part II, Cartman visits Fox studios to discover that “Family Guy” is written by five manatees, which swim around in a large tank selecting idea balls labeled with either a verb, noun or pop-culture reference. The manatees push these idea balls into a slot, where they then fall haphazardly into a container that arranges them into a “Family Guy” joke.

At one point in history, these types of narratives might have been considered stream-of-consciousness, or perhaps free-association works of art belonging in the vein of Surrealism. Now they’re just random.

“Certainly, young people are growing up in a world that accepts a kind of random clashing of ideas and concepts,” said Zimmer. “Things like online culture certainly encourage the mixing of disparate elements that would normally not go together. You could pick two songs that are stylistically different as you can imagine and then create something new out of it. Even just the experience of browsing the web is an experience where there can be a tenuous relation from one stop to the next.”

But are any of these pop-culture examples actually random in the dictionary definition of the word? I don’t think so. Despite what the observer sees, hears, or experiences, there usually is a rational process behind the apparent randomness, a method to the madness.

Imagine a Brazilian woman with an eclectic taste. She likes to watch Anime and eat sushi, listen to Frank Sinatra but not Dean Martin, and wear authentic Jil Sander coats while sporting counterfeit Gucci handbags. Let’s also say that she somehow hates every single Star Wars movie ever made — even the original three — and prefers everything Bollywood, instead.

Pretty random, right? Well, what if there is a reason behind each of her likes and dislikes? What is she spent an enjoyable year in Japan as a teenager? What if her father always danced to Sinatra in the living room, while her stepfather listens to Martin exclusively in his own bedroom? What if at some point she realized that Jar Jar Binks was no more irritating than C-3PO? If that’s the case, then nothing about her preferences is really that random. Just because the mosaic of cultural artifacts may not make sense from the outset, it doesn’t mean they lack order when her biography is revealed. No one lives outside of context. No one’s actions are devoid of intentions.

The Facebook Group “NOT RANDOM” gives a list of things that aren’t random: “That awesome outfit she’s wearing”; “Her super cool new hair style”; “The party you went to last night”; “You.”

* * *

Dr. Mads Haahr isn’t surprised to hear that the modern usage of random originates from within the culture of computer programmers and data enthusiasts, partially because he belongs to this tribe. Haahr is a professor of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College in Dublin, and also the operator of random.org, a website that offers a True Random Number Generator (as opposed to a Pseudo-Random Number Generator) for your lottery-ticket or password-producing needs. Haahr is dedicated to understanding both the philosophical and technical meanings of randomness. I corresponded with him via email to better comprehend our relationship to this increasingly complicated notion of randomness.

As it turns out, Haahr believes people are nearly incapable of doing anything at random because our brains are too efficient at finding patterns, at seeking links between cause and effect. He claims that if you’d ask someone to write a list of 100 random numbers, the list would likely fail a statistical test for randomness. “Randomness,” he wrote in an email, “is exactly the absence of patterns, and we have a hard time with this.”

A link Haahr posted on his website argues that since we can’t erase our memories of the past, we can never obtain the pure state of mental and emotional emptiness required to make a truly random decision. Our natural proclivities and personal histories prevent us from being without bias. “Thus,” the link reads, “it is unlikely we can meet Oprah Winfrey’s and other’s admonition to perform ‘random acts of kindness.’ We will have to settle for just ‘being kind.’”

Haahr wrote to me about the process of getting dressed in the morning:

I suspect someone who gets up and puts on random clothes in the morning just means that they don’t put a lot of thought into it. Of course this doesn’t mean that it is random in any formal sense, just that they are not conscious of the selection process. Certainly a selection process still takes place unconsciously…. I think our minds are working overtime to make sense of an environment that our improved knowledge has revealed to be more complex than we’d ever imagined.

In a sense, when a teenager deems a person or idea “So random!”, they are being dismissive of that person or idea. The teen who utters this word after being confronted with something unfamiliar — an event that doesn’t resonate with his understanding of the universe — is in a way regaining control by restoring order. What is random is folly, and therefore not a threat. In other words, it’s comforting to consider our beliefs and perspectives as logical — they make sense, after all — while any beliefs or perspectives outside of, or in opposition to our own, must therefore be chaotic, confusing, random.

“It is a way of forestalling thinking about deeper connections that might be happening,” said Zimmer. “It can be a superficial reaction to things that break the norms that you’re used to. By people using it so much you get the sense that they are encountering things they didn’t expect quite a lot, and that’s the only way they know how to react to it.”

What is dangerous about this verbal tic, this bad habit, is that it perpetuates a worldview of large-scale disorganization. Since thoughts and language are so intrinsically connected, some kind of fundamental shift is taking place in our minds through the continual maligned use of the word. I’m thinking here in terms of George Orwell’s 1984, where Newspeak leads to doublethink, or Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” from The Atlantic, where Carr argues that the Internet not only alters what we think about, but how we think about what we think about. If words are the building blocks of thought, wouldn’t an abundance of random blocks result in a tendency to build random buildings?

I corresponded with Dr. Paul Horwich, a philosophy professor at NYU who specializes in Wittgenstein’s theory of language. He agrees that someone with an impoverished vocabulary will have an impoverished potential for thought, but that overall the modern usage of random isn’t that harmful.

“I don’t think you can infer from the fact that kids now use the word random a lot more than they used to, that they OVER use it,” Horwich wrote in an email. “Nor can you infer that their vocabulary is impoverished. The increased frequency in the word’s use might be due to an increased interest in randomness, and a sensitivity to it.”

So maybe things aren’t so bad. Words change in usage throughout time; that’s okay. In the Medieval period, before random meant “without pattern or purpose,” the word denoted something done “at a great speed.” Furthermore, Zimmer informed me that the entry for ‘random’ will be updated to include some contemporary definitions in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. These days the anti-random Facebook Groups aren’t receiving as many wall posts as they used to.

* * *

When Ringle opened his Washington Post article with the line, “We have seen the future and it is random,” I believe he was making a moral point. The post-World War II “neat” may have been an ignorant oversimplification of the world and its inherent messiness, but the post-9/11 random is an exaggeration of this messiness and an unwillingness to find resolve or connection. There is something unthinking and uncurious and unfeeling in its use. It is defensive. It indicates a lack of empathy.

Random is anathema to synthesis through imagination, a refusal to enter the unknown.

Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing.” People cannot be purely rational automatons operating on a cold, dead planet. Fortuitous things happen. We give way to whim and fancy. Love exists. You can side with the reasons of the heart, or with an uncaring, indifferent randomness.

Paul Hiebert is a writer in New York.