RANDOM.

The other day, listening to All Things Considered on our local NPR station (WFCR), I was astonished to hear a segment on a language issue that actually came down on the side of a sensible view of language. Neda Ulaby’s That’s So Random: The Evolution Of An Odd Word (you can read the transcript at that link as well as listen to the audio) starts off by quoting a tedious rant about “misuse”:

“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.”

So far, so predictable. But then Ms. Ulaby (who was born in Amman, Jordan, and I’d be curious to know the Arabic form of her name, which is Anglicized as OO-laby) turns to Jesse Sheidlower, “the elegant, purple-haired editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary,” and devotes the heart of the segment to his discussion of the history of the word:

“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.’ “

Her punchline is unimpeachable: “The message: Life, like language, evolves.” I couldn’t have said it better myself! (If you’re curious about the etymology of the word, it’s from Middle French rendon ‘speed, haste,’ later ‘impetuousness, violence,’ from randir ‘to run fast, gallop,’ probably of Germanic origin.)

Comments

  1. “The specifically mathematical sense we have only from the late 19th century”: to be pedantic, “sense” is wrong – we need a plural here. One of the vexing features of an introductory probability and statistics course is that the word “random” can carry different meanings which your lecturer might fail to explain clearly. My own relationship to stats improved immeasurably when I realised that many of my difficulties with the subject weren’t intellectual, but were caused simply by the feeble explanatory and descriptive powers of my lecturers. ( I later learned that it was a specific example of a general difficulty – many mathematicians are rather poor at describing physical realities. One mathematician’s attempt to explain The Heat Equation was so dreadful that I guffawed in the lecture room.) I can’t think of anything else I’ve studied where the flaws were mainly my teachers’ rather than my own. Still, I used to entertain my classmates by delivering tutorials called What the Silly Bugger Probably Really Meant.

  2. many mathematicians are rather poor at describing physical realities
    Actually, many mathematicians are rather poor at describing anything to non-mathematicians, which is why math education is in general so terrible (and thus why so many people are math-illiterate).

  3. Wikipedia has the Arabic version of Neda Ulaby’s name as ندى علبي‎.

  4. Why didn’t I think of that? Thanks!

  5. A lot of people, some of them mathematicians by training and some of them educators, have devoted a lot of attention to the problem of how to improve math education. I doubt that any of them would agree that the main difficulty is that
    many mathematicians are rather poor at describing anything to non-mathematicians
    Don’t get me wrong: Some math professors seem to have a lack of sympathy for students who don’t think like mathematicians, and many are more or less deficient in imagining all the difficulties that can get in the way of communicating with students. But it’s not the whole problem. For one thing, it’s not mathematicians who teach math in school.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Most teachers beyond primary school teach subjects that they themselves have been good at in school, so it is difficult for them to understand students who do not have the same gifts as they themselves had.
    I once attended a lecture by, I think, a philosophy prof, about what could be called “visual argumentation” (I think he used another term, but I don’t recall it). Among other things, the lecturer showed slides of graphs and other visual representations of mathematical statements: the idea is that a line or pattern on a graph is only a schematic representation of what an equation is about, and such lines could potentially be continued ad infinitum if there was enough space on the paper or blackboard. He kept saying “You see? You see?” People like myself who are visually oriented understood the point very well, and in fact I did not immediately see why the lecturer needed to call attention to what seemed to me to be obvious! but among this academic audience there were other people who indeed did not “see”: for them, there was no reason to expect that a line of a certain shape and position, for instance relative to two axes, would continue in the same shape and direction as it started, it could just as well curve up or down or back to its starting point, among an infinity of other paths it could take. They did not understand that there was a direct correspondence between such a line and the mathematical formula it represented in visual form. Of course, not everyone is interested in abstract formulae, which are useless for dealing with things and events that affect people’s personal lives, which indeed can often take unexpected twists and turns.

  7. Sociologists use random, as in random sampling, to SPEED up empiricist deductions…

  8. See also my On Language column “Creeper! Rando! Sketchball!” and Paul Hiebert’s loooong rumination on “random” for The Awl.

  9. From the “tedious rant”: girls will say, ‘Oh, God, I met this random on the way home.’
    I’ve never heard this, but I hear “randomer” a lot in that context (more or less = “random person”). I don’t imagine it’s limited to Ireland, but it’s certainly common here and has been for quite a few years.

  10. There are a couple of problems with ‘higher’ mathematical education. One is that professional mathematicians are generally self-taught, so the whole vexing business of learning mathematics from another human being is unfamiliar.
    Another problem is that advanced mathematics texts and courses rarely, if ever, discuss -why- one would want to do the abstract manipulations that are being described. I recall learning point-set topology as a graduate student (by reading a text and doing the exercises)– there was one ‘motivational’ paragraph in the whole book, in the middle of the third chapter. It was illuminating, but if I didn’t have to learn topology, I’d never have gotten that far.

  11. I doubt that any of them would agree that the main difficulty is that many mathematicians are rather poor at describing anything to non-mathematicians
    Whether they would agree or not, I still think it’s true, and I speak as a former math major who took a lot of math classes. It’s true that at lower levels people who teach math are not mathematicians, but the textbooks they use are written by mathematicians, and… well, let me put it this way: have you ever looked at a Wikipedia article on a mathematical topic? They’re completely unintelligible unless you have a pretty good grounding in the field already. If anyone makes an effort to provide some sort of user-friendly introduction, I imagine it quickly gets deleted by gimlet-eyed math experts who say “That’s a useless oversimplification and could be actively misleading. You simply have to understand basic vector theory [or whatever] to deal with this material.” But that’s not how the human mind works; we need a simplistic, possibly misleading explanation as a rung to help us toward a more complete understanding. We can’t leap right to Parnassus.
    professional mathematicians are generally self-taught, so the whole vexing business of learning mathematics from another human being is unfamiliar.
    An excellent point.

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure if there’s a single overall rule for when you can and can’t productively nominalize an adjective in English, such that e.g. “blue” will be understood in context to mean “a/the blue person/thing.” It seems like you can do that pretty freely in Latin/Greek (if “rhandomos” was a Greek adjective, “ho rhandomos” would mean “the random dude,” right?), but in English it seems cleanest with collectives like “the rich and the poor” or “the great and the good,” whereas treating them as individual count nouns is a little bit odder. But there are lots of such derivations that are more restricted semantically: “Red” meaning “person who’s a Commmie” or “Green” meaning “person who’s an environmentalist,” for example (or “red” and “green” in context as count nouns referring to appropriately-colored counters in a board game). “Random” as a count noun seems parallel to me to the use of e.g. “stupid” in the locus classicus “Some stupid with a flaregun / Burned the place to the ground.” (See also the jocular use of the plural “bitters” in online political discourse, meaning the sort of blue-collar white people supporting Hillary Clinton, of all people, kin the 2008 primaries.) That’s a bit unidiomatic to my ear, but you can figure it out, and if it had caught on sufficiently to become lexicalized in some variety of English, I wouldn’t feel any need to peeve about it.

  13. such that e.g. “blue” will be understood in context to mean “a/the blue person/thing.”
    Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues.” (One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite rock albums.)

  14. Of course, now that I’m listening to it I want to say it’s my FAVORITE SONG EVAR. The Stones have that effect on me.

  15. God damn, that’s a nice Bobby Keys sax solo.

  16. And now all I want to do is put down my editing work, go to a dive bar, and drink cheap beer for the rest of the day. Good thing I’m not in NYC any more; I’d have to walk for miles and miles to find a dive bar around here, and they probably wouldn’t have a decent jukebox anyway.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    That’s a great song and I’m not even sure it’s the best song on side two (w/o even getting into how the early ’69 outtake version of “Loving Cup” that came out in the 2010 reissue is probably better than the one they released in ’72).

  18. You can join me at the dive bar and we’ll bellow the lyrics together.

  19. Daaamn, that really is some fine sax solo. And it twangs, too. Never knew The Stones did that…
    I am really getting my money’s worth here today.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    You can’t even readily find dive bars with cheap beer and good jukeboxes in the East Village anymore, I don’t think. Gentrification. Of course a really good jukebox would be vinyl-only, but (consulting wikipedia . . .) you could in principle get Sweet Virginia as the b-side of the Rocks Off 45.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    We need to tie the two threads together for bulbul. Maybe it was via some shady character at the nominal Byelorussian SSR embassy to the UN that unauthorized Stones records were clanestinely brought back across the Iron Curtain, but with subsequent intra-COMECON distribution spotty and unpredictable? (There’s probably a book to be written about the various improbable contingencies that I suspect influenced which Western rock acts became cultishly popular in which Communist countries even if the records were not sold openly – why was Uriah Heep massive in Bulgaria whereas the Prague dissidents were listening to Zappa/VU? Could that have gone the other way ’round if some butterfly’s wings had beaten in a slightly different velocity or direction? How much of it was radio from outside versus samdizdat-like distribution of nth-generation cassette dubs or some similar technology?)

  22. Speaking of the means a specialist can use to persuade a non-specialist of something, the article on “random” has some reasoning that makes no sense to me at all. A citation is given in which “random” was used colloquially as a noun; this was criticized; and then a purple-haired specialist is called in for a ruling. He pronounces that it is correct to use “random” as a noun, because it was used that way in the 14th century. What??? What could he mean by “correct”, and what could a 700 year old usage possibly have to do with the matter? (And I hope this is not “the sensible view of language” that languagehat is approving of.)
    For reference, here is the part of the article I’m referring to:
    “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, …”

  23. Greg, my wife heard this interview on the radio and told me about it, and at first, based on fragmentary knowledge of what was said, I was a bit puzzled about that same point: the old noun use is not closely related to the new one and cannot explain or justify it. But I think it’s clear that Sheidlower was making a broader point.
    When someone dislikes a new word or a new way of using a word, they will often cast about for something that looks like logical justification for their dislike. “First of all, it’s not a noun” is a very thin argument, if the word has a long pedigree as a noun. Of course, it won’t be the only argument the peever can come up with, and anyway any argument will be beside the point because it’s really just “I don’t like it”, but the point is that this argument is no argument at all.
    This is about recognizing the silliness of a typical argument against a usage. It’s not about offering an argument in favor of a usage (other than “language changes”).
    Let me add that I know someone who knows Jesse Sheidlower, and from what I understand the elegance is at least as striking as the purple hair. Don’t leave out the elegance.

  24. Yes, you’re ignoring context and being quite uncharitable. It’s a brief radio interview, not a scholarly paper. He’s saying, in essence, “It’s kind of silly to say ‘it’s not a noun’ as though that were some inherent feature of the word, when in fact it started out as a noun, and it’s undergone so many changes in usage, semantics, etc., that it’s silly to try to freeze one moment in its history of usage and claim that that is the ‘correct’ usage and everything else is degeneration and ignorance.” Which is the only thing one can say, and one tries to say it in whatever way seems appropriate at the moment.

  25. I just don’t agree that the usage history of “random” is relevant to the facts about its current use that were being discussed. The fact that it was used as a noun 7 centuries back doesn’t make it any more appropriate to start using it as a noun currently. I feel very uncharitable about this parading of useless erudition, because it misleads. How does a layman know that our purple-haired expert is not applying some abstruse theory developed by linguists? Maybe there is a tendency of words which have changed their part of speech to revert back to an earlier usage, for all he knows. This sort of BS could give language experts a bad reputation.

  26. You seem to have a chip on your shoulder. Is it the purple hair that bothers you?

  27. All the modern usages of “random” were in full flower at MIT in the early seventies; at that time these usages were considered argot, and explanations were provided in the wordlist that formed part of the handbook that was distributed to newly arrived freshlings. I don’t know how much further back they go.

  28. a lack of sympathy for students who don’t think like mathematicians
    Did I really write that?! I meant students who don’t think like mathematics, of course.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    The NP “purple-haired editor” seems as far as I can tell from googling to be a quite recent coinage used almost exclusively to describe Mr. Sheidlower and thitherto unknown in English prose. Perhaps a forerunner can be found in the vigorous condemnation of “a sixfold Rabblement of Lemmings — feminists, Marxists, purple-haired semioticians, new historicists, Lacanians, and de Manians.” (Harold Bloom quoted in New York magazine, 1990.) In general, most occurrences of “purple-haired” from the first few pages of google books hits that apply to people (as opposed to certain sorts of plants, in technical botanical works) seem at least mildly pejorative. But of course google books only goes back to 1800 so maybe “purple-haired editor” was once a well-established Middle English NP now experiencing a revival.

  30. I was so happy to hear that Jessie Sheidlower had purple hair, but then if you google him it turns out that it’s at best maroon, and more likely a brownish off-black. He would look so good with purple hair. He’d probably be the coolest man on the planet, the Nick Cave of linguistics (except that Jesse Sheidlower is a much cooler name than Nick so-called Cave). And in fact as soon as I saw him in my mind’s eye as purple haired, my opinion of his ability as a linguist absolutely zoomed up. He’d sell way more books. He’s nuts if he doesn’t do it, he’ll probably end up as president.

  31. @ Greg Lee:
    relevant to the facts about its current use that were being discussed
    What facts? Fact 1: Somebody is using it in a certain way. Fact 2: Somebody doesn’t like it. What, in your view, would be relevant to those facts? What additional facts or ideas would be admissible in an attempt to turn this conflict of preferences into an intelligently reasoned argument? (Argument? “Ah, yes. You want Room 12A, Just along the corridor.”)

  32. marie-lucie says:

    purple-haired
    Not being very familiar with Harold Bloom’s work (only with his name), I had not run into “purple-haired” as some kind of metaphor or euphemism and was eager to see what Jesse S’s hair looked like. I vaguely remembered seeing him, probably on TV, engaged in some kind of conference (I think he had a bow tie, or at least was dressed rather more formally than the other participants), and he did not have purple hair at that time, although with modern hair technology hair can be just about any kind of colour. Perhaps “purple” as an adjective applied to hair is similar to “wine-dark” applied to the sea in Homer: it suggests intensity rather than actual hue. But why would semioticians be particularly attracted to the colour purple? and is there any relation to the novel of that name?

  33. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: as soon as I saw him in my mind’s eye as purple haired, my opinion of his ability as a linguist absolutely zoomed up
    Hm…, perhaps I should consider dyeing my hair purple … but the effect on my fellow linguists might not be quite what I hoped for … they might suspect that I had some especially abstruse theory in the back of my mind …

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    http://blogger.xs4all.nl/werksman/archive/2010/11/20/630877.aspx has pictures of the great Welsh musician John Cale with his hair dyed pink at Buckingham Palace two years ago, receiving his OBE from Prince Charles. I expect that’s more similar to the effect Professor Bloom may have had in mind. Google books, however, has some references to “purple-haired” ladies which I infer from context might be less punk-rock and more henna-gone-awry.

  35. @ Ø:
    What facts? Fact 1: Somebody is using it in a certain way. Fact 2: Somebody doesn’t like it. What, in your view, would be relevant to those facts?
    Nothing would be relevant, in my view.

  36. I tend to agree with Greg Lee on this point. If ‘random’ died out as a noun some centuries ago, and someone this century revived it without reference to the original nominal usage, then the original nominal usage is irrelevant.
    Basically, we should just accept that words can change their usages and meanings, without resorting to different meanings or usages centuries ago or in other languages to justify those changes.

  37. AJP, m-l, I feel that I must share this, an excerpt from an email sent to me last year by a friend of mine:
    You would like Jesse. He’s thoughtful, a great cook, and intensely stylish in tidy yet subtly wacky ways–he tends to be wearing a bow tie and beautifully cut purple hair. I first heard of him when I was working at Discover in the mid-90s and we would take breaks to read his then-blog, Jesse’s Word of the Day. Then at a wedding I read the other place cards at my table. “Omigod, are you the Jesse Sheidlower?” I shrieked. “Jesse Sheidlower the PHILOLOGIST?!” He turned a very gratifying shade of pink.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he varies the hair color from time to time. Kory Stamper, the other way cool lexicographer, certainly does.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    So the purple hair is true! perhaps his own black hair with subtle purple highlights?
    Incidentally, how does he pronounce his last name?

  39. Jesse Sheidlower the PHILOLOGIST?
    It’s such a good name that he could easily have been Jesse Sheidlower the marimba player in The Grateful Dead. I think of its vowels as being pronounced like President Eisenhower‘s. Jesse is cooler than Dwight, though. He’d make a better president.

  40. Bathrobe,
    I completely agree with this:
    Basically, we should just accept that words can change their usages and meanings, without resorting to different meanings or usages centuries ago or in other languages to justify those changes.
    And I don’t think the purple-haired lexicographer was trying to justify a usage, except in the double-negative sense of arguing against an argument against it.
    Hat said this better than I did:
    He’s saying, in essence, “It’s kind of silly to say ‘it’s not a noun’ as though that were some inherent feature of the word, when in fact it started out as a noun, and it’s undergone so many changes in usage, semantics, etc., that it’s silly to try to freeze one moment in its history of usage and claim that that is the ‘correct’ usage and everything else is degeneration and ignorance.”

  41. I tend to agree with Greg Lee on this point. If ‘random’ died out as a noun some centuries ago, and someone this century revived it without reference to the original nominal usage, then the original nominal usage is irrelevant.
    Of course it is. You’re missing Sheidlower’s point, but I’ve already restated it without effect, so I withdraw from the field.

  42. “we should just accept that words can change their usages and meanings” though it might be better to phrase the apercu in a way that doesn’t appear to attribute moral agency to the words.

  43. Me, too. I’d rather than talk about purple hair and “purple-haired”.

  44. J.W. Brewer says:

    Even in the full NPR transcript (as opposed to hat’s synopsis thereof), the quotes from Sheidlower (which I assume were excerpted from a substantially longer conversation, with Sheidlower not in control of what got cut out — heck, there are no direct quotes showing what questions he was responding to, so we have to guess at that) are a bit opaque unless one reads in the sort of connecting/contextual points that one assumes someone as knowledgeable as Sheidlower would have said or at least thought. Or rather, that one would so assume if one already knew for oneself how this stuff works, which I am not prepared to assume the average NPR listener does. You can’t clearly tell what Sheidlower’s point is from the transcript unless you already know what it should be. But that is not necessarily Sheidlower’s fault. Also, radio is nice-and-all, I guess (I myself only listen to an NPR-affiliated station because it mostly plays jazz, and I usually switch stations if I get stuck with a top of the hour NPR news feed instead of music), but the number of words-per-minute you can take in by ear is substantially less than the words-per-minute you can take in by eye, so the risk of being edited-for-space into incoherence/triviality is even higher than it is when being quoted by print journalists because the “space” is even more constrained when its minutes-of-airtime rather than column-inches.

  45. I think of its vowels as being pronounced like President Eisenhower’s.
    Cool analogy. It makes me think of the remark that Peter Ladefoged’s Course in Phonetics teaches you everything except how to pronounce “Ladefoged”. (It’s not pronounced Danish-wise, but /ˈlædɪfoʊɡɪd/.)
    I’ve always wished that the glossaries in elementary linguistics books would give the pronunciations of the technical terms. It would have saved me from decades of saying “vellar” and “alveOHlar”.

  46. the number of words-per-minute you can take in by ear is substantially less than the words-per-minute you can take in by eye
    Is that right? What about those of us who move our lips while we read?

  47. Trond Engen says:

    I move the book when I read. Or the screen. I want an IPad for Christmas.
    You think the name Jesse Sheidlower makes for a president, I think it’s fit for a comparative scatologist.

  48. Trond Engen says:

    Some move their bowels when they read. It’s all connected. You may concider my previous comment shit, but it’s deep shit.

  49. J.W. Brewer says:

    AJP: well, obviously different people read at different speeds, but you can do your own comparison. The audio clip is claimed to be 3 mins 58 secs. Forcing myself to read the transcript as slowly as I possibly could (self-consciously making sure I wasn’t skimming or jumping ahead after guessing words from context or remembering what happened next from a prior reading etc.) stretched out that experience to 47 seconds (including a few seconds lost because of difficulties scrolling down without losing my place). That’s five times faster in wpm, which strikes me as within an ordinary range of variation for the reading/listening ratio. You also have to keep in mind the fact that in many radio context the people are not trying to talk as fast as they possibly can without losing intelligibility for the median listener, but are taking a slower more conversational pace for aesthetic reasons.

  50. Of course it is. You’re missing Sheidlower’s point, but I’ve already restated it without effect, so I withdraw from the field.
    Actually, I was agreeing with Greg Lee to demur at [what seems to be] his conclusion :)

  51. Yes, I know that BBC radio newsreaders are forced to read painfully slowly. They said it was because fast readings made the listeners over excited and wanting more and more news.

  52. “Buckingham Palace announced today…
    …that the Queen…
    …did…
    …absolutely nothing.”

  53. That’s not the news, that would be more of a newsflash.

  54. I heard the story (don’t know if it’s true) that Chinese newsreaders had to slow down at one time because Deng Xiaoping complained they were speaking to fast to follow.

  55. A few points:
    I almost never say that _anything_ is “correct” or “incorrect”, and I even more rarely say that if something is (in)correct then that is because of [some etymological or historical fact]. I often point out etymological or historical information, though.
    Anything you read or view that involves an interaction with the media is highly modified from its original form. For this story I spoke to Ms Ulaby (for whom I have great respect, and by whom I have been interviewed several times) at great length (interrupted, by the way, by numerous other journalists in regard to the “OED Editor Covertly Deleted Words” nonsense, which was going on at the same time), and a very small amount of what I said was stitched into the final piece. That’s how this game is played.
    My natural hair color is medium brown. For the last six months it’s been various shades (depending on time) of purple, none particularly subtle. I don’t think there are any easily findable pictures of me with purple hair, unless you’re a Facebook friend of mine.
    The OED evidence shows that these modern senses of _random_ are first found at MIT in the early 1970s; as I explained in the interview itself (though not in the final cut), it’s clear that these were in use even earlier there.
    There are some good dive bars in the East Village, still. But Brooklyn is better for this.

  56. A lexicographer who knows dive bars is my kind of lexicographer.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for your reply, Mr Sheidlower.
    We tend to trust the media, as long as we don’t know anything about the topic. If we do, it is rare that we agree with a journalist then. It is easy to see why many requests by journalists to speak to various people on a touchy subject are firmly turned down: refusing to answer may look suspicious, but giving answers might make the situation worse for the people in question.

Speak Your Mind

*