That’s So Random

“Random” is a college word. I had this conversation while in college, in which it was determined that college students use certain words that other demographics of the human population do not. I can no longer recall any more of said words, but I can surmise that the list also includes “kegstand” and “Jagermeister” and, much to my chagrin “existential”[1]. And all of this makes sense. College students, perhaps more so than any other group, are all, for the most part, trying to impress each other. There are two major avenues students take to do so. Either by trying to impress with their drinking ability or by trying to impress with their ability to sound smart.

Without getting into a debate about chaos and determinism, I think I am comfortable saying that many features of my life do, in fact, at least appear random. The pile of books next to my bed are stacked in random order. The number the phone company assigned to me was chosen randomly. The cars on the road with me are not in a pre-established order. Many of the conversations I have in a typical day have no ulterior purpose and topics can seem quite random. When I learn a new word, I will often find it in print shortly after learning its meaning, and because I am not specifically seeking out this word, the occurrence seems random.

But is anything really random? The books next to my bed aren’t stacked in a random order, they are stacked in the reverse order that I last read them. It is possible that I was actually assigned my phone number in order of purchase, in other words, I was likely the 5309th customer.[2] Everyone on the road with me at any given time is driving with some destination in mind, it only seems random to me. Most conversations I engage are about something that interests me or my interlocutor. I have never, for example, had a conversation about the mating habits of baboons, but I bet a zookeeper or zoologist has. And perhaps I always see the word I just learned, I just skipped it over it before.

Thinking about this last case, I wonder if when people (read: college students) use the word “random” they actually mean “coincidental,” which is not a college word. At a Vietnamese restaurant recently, I grabbed two fortune cookies, at random, from a large basket filled with fortune cookies for myself and a friend. My friend opened her cookie and it contained no fortune. I opened mine and it contained two fortunes. This is a coincidence,[3] it is also likely random. Someone might say it would be random to have fortune cookies at, say, an Italian restaurant, but unless after writing this I go to an Italian restaurant serving fortune cookies, it would not be coincidental.

My cookie could have easily had only one fortune, and hers could have easily contained one as well. This is what we expect. We generally would not call what we expect a coincidence, but we would also not call it random. But if anything is really random, wouldn’t everything have to be random? This, however, is not how we use the word.

Generally speaking, before I noticed that “random” was often used by college students, the only time I ever heard the word was in terms of selection processes. You can program a computer to select a random number. The winner of the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes is (supposedly) chosen at random.

Using the word “random” to mean odd, weird, bizarre or even coincidental may also be random. As well as the fact that college students have adopted it so. Or maybe college just is random. When I was in college, one evening as I walked back from class to my dorm, I saw a man dressed up as Jesus (well, the Anglo-American version), a man dressed in a long black cape, and a woman with a llama on a leash all (separately) walking down a major cross street on campus. Each of these individual appearances I probably would have described as random, but really, they were only randomly selected in my particular schema of experiencing the world. They were just three people (and a llama) who had some place to go at the same time I did.

This brings me back to my original claim. “Random” is a college word. Before the real world deflates your sails, you may think that you are important enough to have random things occur to you. They don’t. Not really. You are probably using the word in a self-centered way.

So, the next time you see a monkey in a red vest roller skating across a subway platform, see if you describe it as “random.” If you do, you are likely in college, or went to college, or are just happily enjoying your life subjectively. But, if you really think about it, that monkey probably just had somewhere important to be.


[1] “Existential” is also a snob word, and as it turns out, many people learn the art of snobbery in college. I know that with unlimited bandwidth and no well-established internet copyright laws, I became more of a music snob in college. Luckily I’ve outgrown it.
[2] 5309 are not the last four digits of my phone number.
[3] Alanis Morrisette may call this ironic.  She would be wrong.

3 thoughts on “That’s So Random

  1. Good point. Nothing is truly “random”, everything in life is semi-random and more probablistic. Some things are just more likely than occur than others. People place some great importance on “random” or “coincidental” circumstances, but if you think about it, its really not that special. Every minute that you’re awake, its a “chance” for some event to happen, however high probability and insignificant or low probability and significant. We know for certain that “low probibility” events are eventually bound to happen in our life, its just a given. There may be a 1 in a million chance of some event occuring, but it just may be that I repeat that activity enough in my life to actually have that “1” become a reality. An easier way to think about it is that SOMEONE has to win the lottery. As unlikely as it is for any individual, its eventual that SOMEBODY wins. Its like the monkeys in the room w/ the typewriters for infinity eventually typing out Shakespear.

    I also like how you point out that the observer of said “weird’ phenomenon usually attributes it to be significant, or something only “that person” could see (because they’re so special?). Maybe the sense in “pride” for seeing a Jesus and a Llama is that the college person exists in a place where strange occurances are far more likely, and actually appreciate it(college). But its not random. In fact, its really not even all that “improbable”, seeing that you’re on campus. Weird behavior is pretty much a given.

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