Wed 19 Dec 2012
Actually, I’d like to narrow that down just slightly to something a touch more manageable.
Ian VS. a Strawman: Young People Who Abuse the Word “Random”
There, that’s a bit more my current speed.
The Kids Today are big fans of using the word “random” when what they mean of course is “absurd” or “silly“. In their quest for hyperbole, in fact, non-sequiters and shocking moments are not only random but “SO random. This is a bunch of goddamn garbage. You kids are garbage.
Ok, I can hear the main counter argument already. Our language is alive. It’s growing and changing, and if people — young people especially — are adopting a word, that’s the beauty of our living adaptable language at work, and I should pack up my books and my long grey beard and just Deal With It.
And you’re not wrong.
Language does grow and change, and I love that this is so, and I love that we take words, these misshapen vessels of meaning, and bend and hew them to carry new ideas from mind to mouth to mind. I’m in favor of that. Usually.
My issue, as it often is, is with with semantic weight. It’s with all the things random can mean, and already does, and a sense that this new load of meaning serves to, if only slightly, diminish a pretty incredible word. “Random” means so many lovely things, and using it to replace other perfectly good words offends me on two levels.
When describing what “random” means, “Mathematical Random” is what most people think they mean, but almost never do. I work with programmers, but am not one, and the distinction between being mathematically random, and feeling random is kind of astonishing. Take flipping a coin. If a coin were to be flipped six times, the pattern seeking human mind wants 3 heads and 3 tails, but that’s not really random. That is, it’s no MORE random than 6 heads, or 5 tails and 1 heads. When most people talk about random, especially as it relates to video games, or music playback, what they actually mean is “enforced standardized variety within a range of expected results”. But what’s great is that Random gets to mean both, and only people like me, straddling between engineers and the public ever has to worry about the confusion.
In every day use, I see two common uses of “random” that are quite distinct from the above. Take the sentence “They broke up, and now she’s dating some random guy.” or “We ate lunch at some random Thai place.” Of course, they don’t mean a totally arbitrary guy out of all guys. They mean “a heretofore unknown entity (p.s. I’m being dismissive)”. What a great word! So useful!
Another example: “Oh man, I was in Paris, and I ran into my childhood friend Ryan! So random!” And it kind of is! But what you’re really trying to say is “a complex system had an unexpected and significant outcome!” Not only can we convey all that meaning in one word, but because the meanings are actually quite different, we need very few context clues to determine which meaning of “random” the speaker intends.
My second, much pettier, reason is that I write jokes as a pretty central part of my job at this point, and I write a fair number of silly, absurd, goofy jokes. These are exactly the kind of jokes that are regularly called “random“. But they’re not! Making them good is really really hard! Finding the right, thing, just askew enough, to get a laugh, takes practice, instinct, and often a lot of rewrites.
Look, I started writing this like 5 days ago, and then I got sick, and now I’m kind of winding down cause I’m not all fired up with old man crankies anymore. The point is, the way young people talk is stupid, and dub step is awful.