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

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

Pop Culture

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

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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.


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

ULABY: Here's his example.


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.


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.


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.


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

ULABY: Two sweet British geeks discussing randomness scientifically.


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.


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.

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