Wednesday, December 5, 2012

That's so random! (NPR, OEDILF, etc.)

     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 20107 March 20115 August 201115 January 2012, 20 January 2012, 24 February 2012, 12 April 2012, 3 May 2012, and 30 September 2012.  Enjoy!


  1. Hi, Joanne. I think that your version of random is too limited. For example, when heads/tails are equally likely and you flip two coins, the probability of at least one head is 75%, but nobody would say that this act is not random (unless, of course, Persis Diaconnis or Ron Graham or some other sleight of hand specialist is tossing it) because there is no way to predict what will happen. Ditto a weighted coin (55% probability of heads, say). Lack of causality is the hallmark of randomness; in practical terms, lack of perceived causality (a coin's flip is governed by the laws of physics as expressed in differential equations, but we can't do the calculations because we don't have the necessary data --- air currents, etc.). Mlodkinow's The Drunkard's Walk is a wonderful popular discussion of all this; I require it of all my baby stat students.

    1. Thanks, Judy, for dropping by to add your clarifying comment. Yes, my insistence on "equally likely" in all random situations is too limited.
      For example: for selection of a digit from 1,2,3,4,5 to be "random," each of the digits should have an equal chance of being chosen -- but the chances of getting an even digit or an odd one are not equally likely.
      Readers are invited to visit my posting for 3 March 2013 for one of Judy's poems. Here's a link: