Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why the Word "Random" Sucks

One of my weirder, more archaic beliefs is that the meanings of words matter. With the proliferation of nonverbal media—film, television, Youtube and the Twitterization of the news (check out Ashton's Kutcher's response to a friend's death)--it often appears that we're heading towards a post-literate society, or we're already there. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and we're at a point where every phone can record video, aren't words so devalued now that they're worthless, like pennies? Can't an emoticon express emotion just as well as a full sentence?

Well, duhhhhh, no, of course not. Just look at the recent controversy surrounding waterboarding—the question was not whether simulating the feeling of drowning was wrong, but whether it counted as “torture,” which made the debate as semantic and obscure as a couple of children arguing over what counted as “base” in a game of hide-and-seek. We live in a world of images, but rely on words to define and interpret that world—if we're using different words to describe the same thing, we're living in two separate worlds.

This is the long way of introducing one particular word that my generation insists on misusing, sometimes even using it to describe things that are the exact opposite of its definition. Call me a nit-picker, call me old-fashioned, call me mildly autistic, but I'd rather never hear this word again than have it misused one more time.

My dictionary definition for “random” is, “made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision.” As defined, it's a pretty limited word, useful mainly in probability and statistics. After all, almost everything in the world is the result of a method or a conscious decision, even the latter half of Marlon Brando's career and the lyrics to “Purple Rain.”

But somehow people my age and younger have decided that “random” actually means, “entertainingly quirky, or containing obscure pop culture references,” as in:

“I love Family Guy because it's so random!”

Lolz!1!! This video so random!”

“My friend Lola wears these awesome hats and yesterday she was going around with a big Spongebob doll. How random is that?”

No. No. No, no, no. Family Guy is not random. Neither are any of the Adult Swim shows—they just have strange characters and nonsensical plots that don't resolve. In fact, jokes are extremely nonrandom by definition: there's a setup and a carefully orchestrated punchline—or in Family Guy's case, a reference to a show or a movie that's older than most of FG's audience. Anything made by a person is not random, even comments left on an internet messageboard. Please, please stop using the word.

This is a small problem of one specific word, but it's indicative of a larger problem: “random” is just one of many words that now mean absolutely nothing. What idea is expressed when something is called “random,” or when a minor celebrity is called a “star,” or when a public figure retires to “spend more time with his family?” None at all. These are non-words that describe nothing, leave no impression on the mind, and can be written or said without any effect whatsoever. George Orwell, currently spinning in his grave for all sorts of reasons, would have called this “duckspeak”; to see examples of it, tune to a random cable news channel or branch of ESPN. Phrases and arguments come out fully formed and are recorded without anyone on the show paying attention. No one fact-checks, no one quibbles over the truthfulness or accuracy of someone else's statements—they regurgitate standardized arguments at each other and go home happy to have been on television. People only reacted to Rudy Giuliani's recent bald-faced lie because it was impossible not to notice it.

We need to stop this habit. In an era of too many images and words, we need to start watching what we say, in the most literal way. We need to make sure we are expressing ideas when we talk and write, not just moving our mouths or our keyboards. Our language is not random. Let's keep it that way.

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