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I am bothered by the modern usage of the term "random", and am wondering if "it's just me" or if there is a reason for my being discomfited.

Take for instance, this lovely bit:

The column and table names are random. 

Or, perhaps, in the colloquial sense, when talking about a post on Facebook, etc.:

That's so random.

To me, random indicates something that occurs completely by chance. A post on Facebook and indeed the names of columns and tables, can hardly be "random" since they have been chosen consciously.

Am I right, or just too "old skool" for my own good?

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    Some people arbitrarily choose to use random where most of us would use arbitrary. – FumbleFingers Sep 12 '14 at 20:20
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    This is a fun question. One can do a lot with this one. See below. – thb Sep 12 '14 at 20:33
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    If I encounter random column and table names, I think I'd expect them to change around on refresh. If they're static or cyclical, they're arbitrarily defined. – SrJoven Sep 12 '14 at 20:48
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    @FumbleFingers Some people randomly choose to use random instead of arbitrary ;) – Massimo Sep 13 '14 at 15:03
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    A mathematical definition of random is really quite complicated and far from cut-and-dried…I suggest that your definition, while different from those of these many younger people, is not necessarily more “correct”. – Micah Walter Sep 13 '14 at 17:48
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Well, let's take the pedantry a step further and consult some references. Dictionary.com provides the following set of definitions:

adjective

  1. proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern: the random selection of numbers.

  2. Statistics. of or characterizing a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.

  3. Building Trades.
    a. (of building materials) lacking uniformity of dimensions: random shingles.
    b. (of ashlar) laid without continuous courses.
    c. constructed or applied without regularity: random bond.

  4. Informal.
    a. unknown, unidentified, or out of place:
    A couple of random guys showed up at the party.
    b. odd and unpredictable in an amusing way: my totally random life.

Idioms

  1. at random, without definite aim, purpose, method, or adherence to a prior arrangement; in a haphazard way:

A cursory review of other references shows that the without reason or thought definition is widely accepted, and is often more prominent than technical meanings for the term. In other words, from the standpoint of the vernacular (which is to say the language popularity contest) you are not old skool; you are just wrong.

This is a hypothesis. To test the hypothesis, let's look back in time. Etymology Online says the origin of the word random is:

"having no definite aim or purpose," 1650s, from at random (1560s), "at great speed" (thus, "carelessly, haphazardly"), alteration of Middle English noun randon "impetuosity, speed" (c.1300), from Old French randon "rush, disorder, force, impetuosity," from randir "to run fast," from Frankish *rant "a running" or some other Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *randa (cognates: Old High German rennen "to run," Old English rinnan "to flow, to run;" see run (v.)).

So in other words, the usages you are critiquing are in fact the old skool meanings for the word. Now, as you are no doubt aware, there is a wide variety of technical definitions for random with which the average layperson is not familiar. That same Wikipedia link provides the following meta discussion of randomness, titled:

Randomness versus unpredictability

Randomness, as opposed to unpredictability, is an objective property. Determinists believe it is an objective fact that randomness does not in fact exist. Also, what appears random to one observer may not appear random to another. Consider two observers of a sequence of bits, when only one of whom has the cryptographic key needed to turn the sequence of bits into a readable message. For that observer the message is not random, but it is unpredictable for the other.

And it goes on. The point I draw from this is that from the perspective of every day usage, there is no meaningful difference between appearing random and truly random. In particular, proving true randomness requires a rigorous statistical analysis, for which one would need to acquire far more data than is typically available.


On a personal note, I happen to agree with you. For the two examples you provided, I feel that much more precise term is arbitrary. But I don't mind being wrong; to answer your title question of why it feels wrong, it's your decision as to how right or wrong you want to be. Furthermore, it's up to you to decide the criteria for rightness. I tend to favor precision highly in my criteria for language use, but I think you can tell from the rest of my answer that I don't think many other people share that value.


On a final note, the criteria for correctness I allude to above depend heavily upon the context: who is the speaker, who is the expected audience, what is the topic being discussed? Your example of "The column and table names are random" is particularly tricky because it implies a technical context. As I am myself a programmer frequently working with databases, I would assume this sentence was talking about databases. In computer science, randomness has very particular definitions, none of which are close to the primary definition. Arbitrary is almost certainly the correct term in that sentence. After all, there is a wide difference between a naming schema of MyTable, MyOtherTable, SomeColumn etc. (arbitrary) and sʇɐƆʎʇʇǝɹԀ, d$fv$5vmZO^zc90h7, 3712#%58!efyox6!z66@j96 and Z̍a̟̳̮͍̘̰͎͝l̙̥̪̞̂͐͟ͅg̛̃̅͑o̰͖͇͙'̴̱̳͍̰̠̄́̍̐s̙̳͍͇͍ͦ͝T̤̹̱̜̜̱̔͗̂̚ä͊ͪ̆b̺͔̖̩͍͉ͪ̓̂́ͪl̞̖̯̗̣͕̊̓ͩ̃e͎̦̣̳͓͖̬ (actual randomness)

Note that I actually chose my 'random' names (with help from Upsidedowntext.com, LastPass and of course Zalgo Text Generator), so from a technical perspective, they're at best arbitrary enough to appear psuedo-random and at worst, just plain arbitrary.

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    +1 If you compare this answer against mine, this answer is a good example of the other school of thought. See Tolkien, "Lit. and Lang." This answer is the Lit. Mine is the Lang. – thb Sep 12 '14 at 20:30
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    I love your answer! – Max Vernon Sep 12 '14 at 21:10
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    After all you've written of your own admission, what is your criteria for judging the use of the word random as less precise than arbitrary in the non-technical context? Is it that the existence of a technical meaning skews its overall meaning as a word for you away from the primary definition? – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 5:03
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    I can't wait till pseudo-random makes its way into general usage: "LEL IM SO PSEUDO-RANDOM xDDDDD" – BoltClock Sep 13 '14 at 6:53
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    @vidget My reasoning is as follows: in a technical setting, technical definitions of words (where they exist && I know of them ~= I am somewhat familiar with the technology at hand) supersede general or common use definitions. In this case, the co-occurrence of column and table triggers the technical context in my brain. If the example sentence had been The column and table materials are seemingly random, I might've instead been put in a mind of architecture or archeology, where statistical randomness is less important. – Patrick M Sep 13 '14 at 16:05
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There are two schools of thought regarding the correct definition of words: etymology and usage. (Or historical vs. contemporary usage, if you prefer.) This is not the place for an essay comparison of the two, but my school says that etymology is the superior guide to usage. Besides, etymology is fun, and it's as old as "old skool" gets, so here we go.

Per the dictionary, random is related to the old French randon, which indicates force, violence or rapidity. By contrast, your examples suggest aimlessness, which is quite the wrong image.

So, I had never thought of it before, but it seems that you are right: "The column and table names are random" would indeed represent poor English usage. Rather, "The column and table names are meaningless," "purposeless," "ill chosen" or "arbitrary."

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    You're very welcome, thb. I'm personally in favor of language based on precision, accuracy and nuance. But as language is pretty much the ultimate democracy, the task of improving it is a subjective fool's errand. – Patrick M Sep 12 '14 at 21:39
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    @PatrickM Precision? Accuracy? Why? As Vern's son once said: "No, no, you see, the rules of language are purely arbitrary, stodgy, ivory-tower crap we doesn't have to worried aboard because everytime history on you rebendible sausage mountain." How true. – user2338816 Sep 13 '14 at 4:21
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    @user2338816, in other words, the rules are random? – vidget Sep 13 '14 at 4:59
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    @vidget Naah, simple satire toward those who can't appreciate precision/accuracy/nuance. – user2338816 Sep 13 '14 at 5:35
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    @user2338816: Sausage mountain? Where on my screen is the +100 upvote switch? I can't find it. – thb Sep 13 '14 at 11:23
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This really boils down to: Should we be pedantic to preserve the precision with which we can communicate with others who also wish to do so, at the cost of being repeatedly misunderstood by the unpredictable assortment of people we interact with daily?

Historically, I've been of a mind to preserve the existing rules and nuances that have developed over many centuries. I've learned about Sanskrit and how it has words for concepts we require entire paragraphs to reference, and I am frankly envious of those who could use it to converse about philosophy. The inefficiency of a language which falls back on verbosity to account for lack of precision depresses me to no end. It's a case of quality vs. quantity where I feel there's no question over which is better.

That said, I've become pragmagtic over the years. I've seen too many blank stares, the result of my knowing the exact, perfect word to express my thoughts, while the person in front of me has a more run-of-the-mill vocabulary, entirely capable of expressing complex thoughts, but only by stringing together many non-complex words. I complain of ennui, and the person in front of me wonders what I'm talking about.

I think an interesting parallel would be written language. Consider Kanji/Hanzi characters. Thousands of them, most as compact as one or two latin letters, often with deep, specific meanings that are difficult to express in anything less than a sentence in another language. The efficiency of space or time there is amazing. However, the learning curve is very steep. Even native speakers tend not to know a lot of the more esoteric characters, or might even misuse them out of ignorance or misunderstanding. In computer terms, I would say the bandwidth is much better than English, but the compatibility is low and the error rate is high.

These days, I'm more of a mind to stop swimming against the current. It is, by far, more efficient to adapt to the changing meanings of words, that we might use them and be understood by all, than it is to wish that everyone shared our desire for consistency and precision. They simply don't, and no amount of even the most well-meaning urging will change their minds.

TL;DR: Your wishes are understandable, but impractical when it comes to a word like "random," where the specific meaning is, and forever shall be, understood only by a very small subset of the population. Give in to the de facto definition of the word, at least when speaking to non-technical people. They will never adopt the definition(s) you wish they would.

  • Thank you for a well written and thoughtful answer. However, I don't think I'll use random in the colloquial sense, and whenever I hear someone use it incorrectly, my mind will still reel. Ima be like, yo, dawg, stop throwing down dat stupid sh*t. – Max Vernon Nov 1 '16 at 11:00

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