Monday, March 12, 2012

This article appeared recently in the legal magazine Lexpert:

Millennial Mantra

In the 1950s, everything was “neat.” Nowadays, overstimulated teens capture the zeitgeist with their own mot juste
"OH MY GOD! I gotta tell you what happened at Jason's party last night. It was, like, so incredibly random.”
The utterer of the above words (overheard recently at a Starbucks) was, perhaps not surprisingly, a text-maniacal teenager. If, however, you happen to be a polite and mature person who refrains from eavesdropping on adolescent conversations the way I do, I should explain the meaning of the italicized word. For adherents of old school thinking, the word “random” brings to mind its traditional dictionary definition, which describes something “without a pattern.” However, for people under 30, its most common sense is “out of the norm.”
Whether the skinny, peppermint-mocha-drinking young lady felt that what happened at Jason's party was “exciting,” “weird,” “lame,” or “gross,” I didn't have a clue, nor did I have the temerity to ask for clarification. Complicating matters, some people use the word to mean “inconsistent” or “inconsequential.”
“Random” also does double duty as a noun (as in, “He's such a random"). Paul McFedries's website states that, when employed as a noun, the word denotes that the person in question is outside the hacker community. He gives this as an example: “I bailed out of that Net seminar because it was just a bunch of randoms asking bogus questions.” Judging, however, from other usages I've spotted of “random” as a noun (as in, “I'm just going for coffee with some randoms") it's also often used to refer to an indistinct group.
Not only is the new sense of random being used ubiquitously by English speakers from Canada to New Zealand, but I have spotted it making inroads in other languages, such as Italian, Spanish, Québécois, French and German in much the way that “cool” and “okay” have become international buzzwords.
Not everyone is on board with the word's recent evolution. The new usage has spawned much disdain, particularly on Facebook. For example, there is a Facebook page called “I hate people who say (and misuse) the word random” with 304 members; another called “Society against the overuse of the word ‘random'” with 180 members; and yet another called “Campaign against inappropriate use of the word random,” which sports 301 members.
At this last site, readers are warned, “For several years we have witnessed the proliferation of ‘random’ propositions. It's time to call time on this irritating phenomenon. Inappropriate use of this word (which, incidentally means ‘made, done, happening or chosen without method or conscious decision’ - Source: Webster's Dictionary) only serves to furnish you with the appearance of being ignorant, inarticulate and unsophisticated. Do yourself, and your peers, a favour by banishing it from your tedious patter.”
Alas, this usage has even filtered into mainstream writing. A New York Magazine article two years ago was entitled “Six Random Michael Jackson Pop-Culture Moments.” And judging from the innumerable Internet usages I spotted, random can be synonymous with “cool,” “fun,” “exciting” and “distinct” but it can just as easily mean “silly,” “inconsequential,” “distasteful,” “strange” or “impossible.” The word appears to mean everything and nothing, although a closer look does show signs of sense behind the nonsense.
Back in 2003, Ken Ringle declared in the Washington Post that the Age of Aquarius had been supplanted by the Age of Random. Ringle surmised that the youth of the third millennium have been “so overwhelmed by the randomness of the stimuli assaulting them that they selected ‘random’ as their adjective of choice,” and added that he viewed “random” as the flip side of the 1950s favourite adjective, “neat.”
According to lexicographer Ben Zimmer the “random” age began in the late ‘60s. Zimmer spotted the following definition of “random” from the MIT student paper, The Tech, in 1971. As an adjective: “peculiar, strange, unpredictable, or inexplicable.” As a noun: “a person who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time ... a person who is not a member of a particular group, an outsider.”
I suppose it is a testament to the importance of geek culture that the term eventually spread into mainstream culture to become one of the mantras of the new age. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, the greatest tome of our language, has leant credence to the mutation, showing definitions of “random” that reflect its new meanings.
Like, how random is that?
Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words. He can be reached at

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