Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Random Thoughts

This semester I've been tutoring for an undergraduate semantics course, which has been a whole lot of fun. I really like semantics (basically: word meaning) because everyone has an opinion on what a word means, and sometimes hold to that quite passionately.

The first assignment involved discussing the word 'random'. Random is a great word to discuss in semantics because it's recently been getting a workout in colloquial senses such as:

"Everyone at the party was dressed so randomly"

"Zomg last night I got so drunk I made out with some random"

What concerned me in the assignment were the number of people that said things like 'their clothing was not worn with equal chance of all items of clothing being chosen and therefore this is not a legitimate use of the word.' It scares me that people can't see a colloquial usage of a word as legitimate - considering that more people probably use it more often in more contexts than the statistical sense.

What really concerned me about some people's analysis is that they tried to argue that the statistical sense of random precedes the more general sense of being without observable pattern or explanation to the speaker. A cursory read of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the earliest citation for the general sense is 1655 while the first for the specific statistical sense is 1884( ).

It's one thing to make close-minded judgments about language use, it's another thing to be too lazy to consult a dictionary...

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