That's So Random: The Evolution Of An Odd Word NPR's Neda Ulaby investigates the etymology of random, a word comedian Spencer Thompson calls "the most misused ... of our generation." It turns out that Thompson's frustration is a bit misplaced — random has been around since the 14th century, and its usage shows how life, like language, evolves.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/166240531/166253621" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
That's So Random: The Evolution Of An Odd Word

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/166240531/166253621" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • 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)

ULABY: Here's his example.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

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")

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")

ULABY: Two sweet British geeks discussing randomness scientifically.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO "FUN SCIENCE")

ULABY: Life, like language, evolves.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO "FUN SCIENCE")

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

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.