One of the challenges I face in friendly conversations is not to overreact to a "misuse" of the word random. When I hear someone use that word to describe events that are peculiar or haphazard my heart-rate rises in protest. It is as if I am in math class where every term has one, quantifiable definition -- my use of random describes a situation when a variety of things may happen and all of them are equally likely. Like when a fair coin is tossed, or a die. Or when a lottery ticket is selected.
Recently my attitude was aired nationally. Sort of. On Friday, November 30, NPR's Evening Edition featured a discussion of random. Written by commentator Neda Ulaby, "That's So Random: The Evolution of an Odd Word" mentions the 1995 film "Clueless," a comedian (Spencer Thompson), the Hacker's Dictionary -- and also includes comments from the Oxford English Dictionary's editor, Jesse Sheidlower. I am rethinking my stubborn position.
In his comments, Sheidlower mentions that random is an old word -- starting 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.' " The specifically mathematical sense of random -- about which I have felt so defensive -- came during the late 19th century.
A search for poetry containing random -- with any of its various meanings -- led me to one of my favorite websites, OEDILIF, The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form. This dictionary defines, at present, only words beginning with A, B, C, D, and E -- but a search using "random" yields more than 80 limerick-definitions that apply the word; here are four, copied and pasted from the OEDILIF site -- with links to the site and the limerick-creators.
abated by rbarenblat
Hurricanes widely are hated;
Their destruction seems random, not fated.
Simple walks on the beach
Become quite out of reach
'Til the storm has passed by, or abated.
arbitrary by Jesse Frankovich
Having arbitrary government rule,
Unrestrained, can seem random and cruel.
We shouldn't make war
Or give rich people more
Simply based on the whim of a fool.
derivation by Bob Dvorak
Add an affix to some random word;
Derivation is what has occurred —
As in danced comes from dance,
Or perchance came by chance;
But renege formed from "nege"? That's absurd.
Cerf, Bennett by Bob Dvorak
Random publishers never rose higher
Than Bennett (plays heaven's first lyre).
What's his line? Pun my word!
When he died, heaven heard
"Cerf's up!" from a wag in the choir.
Bennett Cerf (1898-1971), founder of Random House Publishing, was well-known for his puns.
Here is one more reference -- this time to the Dictionary of Internet Slang, which also offers a variety of meanings of "random."
The term random has appeared in a variety of poems previously posted on this blog: 19 April 2010, 7 March 2011, 5 August 2011, 15 January 2012, 20 January 2012, 24 February 2012, 12 April 2012, 3 May 2012, and 30 September 2012. Enjoy!