A recent article in the New York Times discussed the decision by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to eliminate the use of small metal buttons to signify that you have paid admission.

met button

The entrances are fairly open, and guards glance over the crowd to make sure you have the badge of a patron. All buttons on a given day are the same color. The color changes the next day so that one cannot return and enter without paying.

According to the Times,

the colors are changed daily in random order.

The Compact ODO defines order as

the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method

It defines random to mean

made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision

Is this a mistake, a deliberate oxymoron, or is there a straightforward logical meaning to this phrase?

  • 3
    Look up sequence again. The numbers at roulette come up in a sequence, and also in random order. – TimLymington Jun 28 '13 at 21:55
  • 9
    This looks more like a peeve than a genuine question. – FumbleFingers Jun 28 '13 at 23:30
  • But it is a damn good motivated peeve! I checked random in the dictionary myself, and neither "a random selection" nor "random order" are listed. The only noun suggested is "sample" as in "a random sample". Not how I would define a reliable dictionary. – Mari-Lou A Jun 29 '13 at 4:29
  • @TimLymington But why would the OP or any learner look up "sequence"? There is nothing to suggest that "order" needn't follow a logical sequence. I think we can all agree that random order is perfectly acceptable and a very common expression, if OD can allow themselves to ignore such a common expression what other idioms, expressions, uses have been omitted in the name of conciseness? – Mari-Lou A Jun 29 '13 at 4:44
  • 3
    @Mari-LouA: because sequence is part of the definition he is having trouble with. And any dictionary that included random order would have to include millions of other two-word phrases. Random order is no more idiomatic than alphabetical order or reliable dictionary; it is a simple adjective +noun. – TimLymington Jun 29 '13 at 17:12

As Shakespeare notes, sometimes there's method in madness.

Yes, “random order” is an oxymoron in that the two words are an apparent contradiction in terms: order suggests organization while random suggests a lack thereof. However, like many oxymora, the contradiction is incidental and resolvable by careful consideration. “Controlled chaos” is a similar oxymoron where lack of a method is part of the method.

To resolve the contradiction, first consider that order doesn't always mean deliberate order. The natural order is a well-known example, used in contrast to the laws of God and men, where philosophers base morality on the natural world as observed instead of a divine or mortal plan. Spontaneous order is a similar example, where order emerges “out of seeming chaos.” This lies at the root of Tim Lymington's comment that sequence needn't imply deliberation.

Furthermore, the Oxford definition of random overlooks many subtleties of the word, as it's a dictionary and not a comprehensive treatment of the subject. While a random order does imply a lack of conscious choice in selecting each element of the sequence, it does not speak to the choice of employing randomness in the overall method. The process is deliberate (and thus ordered) even if the outcome is not (and thus random).

I don't believe that this is a deliberate oxymoron – emphasis mine:

In general, oxymora can be divided into expressions that were deliberately crafted to be contradictory and those phrases that inadvertently or incidentally contain a contradiction, often as a result of a punning use of one or both words.

Order includes both deliberate and observed sequences. Randomness can indicate a lack of a plan or simply an unpredictable outcome. “Random order” actually means “an observed sequence with unpredictable outcome.” The contradiction only arises incidentally, if you select the wrong meaning of both words to form “a deliberate lack of a plan,” making this an inadvertent oxymoron.


Webster's Dictionary has:

  1. the disposition of things following one after another

(one of 30 defined senses for the nounal use!)

So, without having to check whether 'sequence' demands a non-random arrangement or not, this sense licenses both prescribed and chance arrangements. And surely most people would acknowledge without having to check in a dictionary that 'shuffling changes the order of the cards in a pack'.

One definition given by a single dictionary is not adequate to base a treatise on.

  • I agree that is good practice to check definitions in more than one dictionary, but "random order" is hardly obscure and it's Oxford Dictionaries: "The world's most trusted dictionaries". I for one am quite startled by their omission. – Mari-Lou A Jun 29 '13 at 4:47
  • It was only the Compact that was mentioned. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 29 '13 at 16:16

Strictly speaking, there's not enough information to answer your question, but it's probably fine.

If each day's color is selected randomly at the moment that it is needed, you could make the case that there never exists a sequence of upcoming colors that could be in any kind of order (although this is really splitting hairs, to be honest). However, doing it this way creates the possibility that the same color could be used on two or more subsequent days, which is undesirable for a number of reasons. It seems likely, therefore, that at any given time the museum maintains a short "buffer" of unduplicating colors to be used on upcoming days, and that the sequence of colors in the buffer is indeed in random order.


The answer? Change your online dictionary.

In free dictionary for "random" it states:

  1. Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective: random movements. See Synonyms at chance.

Idiom: at random Without a governing design, method, or purpose; unsystematically: chose [sic?] a card at random from the deck.

n. at random in a purposeless fashion; not following any prearranged order

Thesaurus: Adj. 1. random - lacking any definite plan or order or purpose; governed by or depending on chance; "a random choice"; "bombs fell at random"; "random movements"

In Merriam-Webster in Examples of random it has:

"We tasted the wines in random order and then rated each."

"Random order" is perfectly acceptable and used in everyday situations. Perhaps it was once more correct to say:

  • "the colors are changed daily at random."
  • "the colors are changed randomly on a daily basis"
  • "the colors are changed following no specific order"

But in none of the three dictionaries I consulted was there any mention that "random order" is considered non-standard or informal English.


  • So the definitions from Free-dictionary and Merriam Webster online dictionaries receive a vote-down because..? – Mari-Lou A Jul 14 '13 at 19:04
  • 3
    Perhaps this is a bit late to respond to your comments, but change your online dictionary is never a helpful answer. If OP really thinks 'according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method* excludes randomly, then he needs to do more research into what each of those words means; if he edits his question, we may be able to help more. But advising somebody who thinks the dictionary is wrong to find another dictionary is the very reverse of helpful advice, since it implies that he has as much right to decide on a definition as the lexicographer, which is almost certainly false. – TimLymington Jul 18 '13 at 15:15
  • @TimLymington you are not the first to point out, (Fumble-fingers was the first) that the first sentence in my answer is unhelpful and inappropriate. And after considering the matter I will concede that my answer appears to be rude, and possibly, be interpreted as a criticism towards the OP. Nothing further from the truth. I do believe, however, that the two resources I cited, both extremely well-known, demonstrate that "random order" as a phrase is not a mistake, nor a deliberate oxymoron. – Mari-Lou A Jul 18 '13 at 15:56
  • But at the very least I now understand why my answer is considered inappropriate and incorrect, for which I do appreciate your comment. So, thank you for clearing up the "mystery". :) – Mari-Lou A Jul 18 '13 at 16:00
  • The fact I understand why some people down-voted this answer (because of my perceived rudeness) doesn't justify a third anonymous down-vote (or is it fourth--I've lost count). The OP based his entire question on the poor and inadequate definitions of random and order in the concise Oxford dictionary. I don't give a damn if it's "Oxford" A name and reputation doesn't mean it's infallible. I merely pointed out that by using other online dictionaries the OP would have understood more clearly the meaning of "random order". So, continue down-voting this answer if it makes you feel better. – Mari-Lou A Aug 21 '13 at 20:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.