That's random

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The word random is being used with a new meaning by young people in Britain (or in Edinburgh, anyway), as Miriam Meyerhoff first pointed out to me. The new meaning is nothing like "distributed according to chance". Young people will see a surprising thing and say, "Wow, that's random!".

I heard something like this the other day, from a student. (I think I rather frightened her by stopping her and her friend in the street and questioning her about the usage; but hey, she was right near the Dugald Stewart Building and the Informatics Forum in Edinburgh's central university district — she has to get used to the idea that the area is thick with people with research interests in language around here.)

I think the new meaning is something like "unexpected" or "unusual". But commenters who have native knowledge of teenage British dialects may supply further information below.

[I say they "may" supply further information. Did they ever. Comments confirming the new meaning, from all over the Anglophone world, started coming in instantly at one every sixty seconds, the fastest burst of commenting I have ever seen on Language Log. The recency illusion strikes again: I found the usage novel merely because I happened to have only just noticed it. It turns out to be a decade old at least. Eventually, after more than 60 comments, Jesse Sheidlower points out that the new sense is actually already in the Oxford English Dictionary! (I confess, I had not thought to check it, because I was in the grip of the recency illusion and thought it couldn't possibly be there yet!) —GKP]


  1. Recury said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    Yes, unexpected or unusual. It's AmE too.

  2. Matthew said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    That's been a pretty common usage in the US for years (and it was discussed in last week's On Language: It always grates on my nerves to hear someone say, "Oh my God, that was totally random!" in response to an event that, while odd, is the product of explicable processes that are as nearly deterministic as is possible.

    [Gack! I really should have read our own Ben Zimmer's latest "On Language" column by now! It is one of the rare cultural disadvantages of being on the eastern side of the Atlantic, here in Edinburgh, that I don't get to eat a bagel and lox while reading the New York Times on a Sunday morning. It's kippers and the British Sunday papers, and they do not have Ben Zimmer. —GKP]

  3. Hydragyrum said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    I can attest to it in Australian English, at least among the internet-using population. My sister (24) has been using the word that way for a couple of years now.

  4. Ed said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    It's not so new either. At least 10 years old probably more.

  5. Gary said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    have heard it for at least 2 years now among speakers of british english, irish english, australian english and american english

  6. Richard Hershberger said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    I have heard this usage, or one very similar, in the Middle Atlantic states of the U.S. Furthermore, my un-cited, subjective impression is that I have heard it in the past: say, ten years or so.

    I will have to ask my wife, who teaches high school, if she hears it.

  7. Adriana said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Yes, it has had this meaning for a while here in the US and not only for teenagers, in general younger than 30 yo, I would say.

  8. Colin said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    For example:

  9. Yuval said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Indeed, welcome to circa 2000.
    It's extremely cliche in the States, and is widely hated by various adult (>25yo) communities.

    [The Urban Dictionary lexicographers really hate it like poison! —GKP]

  10. Ed said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    That dates back to at least my school days 16 years ago. It can also be used as a noun. E.g. "He's such a random" means "He's unpredictable/odd." It has mildly positive connotations.

  11. Maria said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I'm ESL in my late twenties living in NY, and that usage is quite common among my AmE friends.

  12. Leland Paul said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    This usage has definitely been part of my idiolect since I was in middle school or os (around 12 years ago), and I'm American (from the West Coast, originally). Yes, it means something along the lines of "unexpected". Never thought to question it before now, actually.

  13. Aoife said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    In Ireland among my twentysomething friends, strangers are routinely referred to as randomers.

    "Who was that guy you were talking to?"
    "Just a randomer asking for directions."

    "Ah feck, there's randomers sitting in our usual spot!"


  14. Catherine12 said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    I've heard this too – I grew up in New York City (left it about ten years ago) and heard it a lot there. Now I live in New England and don't hear it much anymore (though maybe this is because I spend less time around teenagers).

  15. David said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    It's been used by teens in the U.S. for a long time.

  16. Aleia said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    I've heard (and used!) it in AmE for at least six years, although with much less frequency these days. (Whether that's an actual general decline as a popular expression or just that my personal communities include significantly fewer teenagers, I have no idea.)

    I've heard it as unexpected or odd, something that doesn't follow from explicit logic or normal circumstances.

  17. dfan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    I've heard (and used) this usage for 20 years (in the US), I think – I'm pretty sure this was commonly used back in college.

  18. Dan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    I believe that the word first began shifting its meaning with the phrase "so random," as in "that's so random!"

    Of course urbandictionary tracks the evolving meanings:

    And this 2003 blog post attributes the phrase to Bill Gates!

  19. A said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    I've heard it a lot in the US as well; my 22-year-old sister uses it to mean something like "surprising" and "unexpected" of another's actions. (I.e. someone having won the lottery would not be "random", but that person deep-frying all the winnings would be!)

  20. Ms Baroque said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    Safe. My kids were saying this aaaaages ago. Even I say it now, it's bare sick bruv.They've moved on to things people like me don't understand.

  21. Anonymous1345 said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    AmE here. It's not that new or young, at least in the US. My 40-something friends use it regularly, and have done so for at least ten, fifteen years.

    My sense is that it is more frequently used to describe unpleasant surprises than positive ones. For example, "He stood you up? That's random," said in commiseration, almost interchangeable with "that's lame."

  22. Robert Morris said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    Is this really restricted to British English? I'm a mid-20's native speaker of American English (I'm even from the midwest :)), and that usage has been common for quite some time with at least people my age.

    I believe "unexpected" is a good synonym.

  23. Kris said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    In AmE we use "rando" instead of your "randomer" (which Aoife uses). As my lab mate just described, a "rando" is "a person who you don't know why they're there."

  24. Also said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    Related to "rando," which I've used and heard used in reference to strangers (i.e. who's that rando she's talking to?).

  25. Complicitous said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    As a recently retired young person in Britain, I would say that "random" does more than indicate the unexpected or unusual: it also suggests that the event being described does not really make sense in terms of the overall discussion as a whole. In a conversation about playing the lottery, a statement that a close friend had won the lottery would not be random, even though it might be unexpected. But in a conversation about the financial situation of my various friends, a statement that one of them was wealthy because he had won the lottery would be random, because the unexpected fact of his winning the lottery would be only tangential to the focus of the conversation. An unexpected fact that unpredictably arises in a conversation, perhaps?

    I've done a poor job explaining that.

    "Random" can also be used as a noun, to designate a person who does not warrant specific identification.

    A: "Who else was at the party last night?"
    B: "Oh, it was just Will and Sanjay, and a bunch of randoms."

  26. Steve Downey said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    Related usages are noted in the Jargon File, going back at least 25 years.

    [(myl) The OED gives the sense "Peculiar, strange; nonsensical, unpredictable, or inexplicable; unexpected", with citations going back to the MIT student newspaper in 1971:

    1971 Tech (Mass. Inst. Technol.) 3 Feb. 2/2, 274 random nurdulent tools in an 18.02 lecture. 1983 G. L. STEELE Hacker's Dict. 108 Random, assorted; various; undistinguished; uninteresting..frivolous..incoherent or inelegant. 1988 N.Y. Times 11 Dec. (Mag. section) 24/3 ‘This really random guy’ would not be a flattering way of describing a new acquaintance.

    I can attest that most of these meanings were current in the 1960s, so (if my memory is accurate) make that at least 50 years…

    It's worth noting that some related meanings were current long before the use in probability theory was invented: "stones of irregular sizes and shapes" (1703 R. NEVE City & Countrey Purchaser at Paving, Random-Pavement, (says Mr. Wing) at the Quarry, is worth 2 d. half-penny..per foot.); "having no definite aim or purpose" (1764 R. BURN Hist. Poor Laws 190 Leaving the poor to be supported by random charity.); "careless, flighty" (c1825 Houlston Tracts II. No. 60. 6 ‘In my time, Sir’, said he, ‘I've been random and free, But I now prefer order and quiet’); etc.

    This suggests that the "new" meanings are actually older than the "old" one.]

  27. Neil said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    I remember it being quite popular (and I'm pretty sure it still is) when I was a lowly first-year (UK English, white middle class) undergraduate in 1996.

    It was also used wrt people. A common example being *horsey voice*"I pulled a COMPLETE random last night Tarquin!"*/horsey voice* Presumably missing the "punter" one might expect to follow.

  28. adam j. said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    Another AmE speaker from NYC here, I can attest that a lot of people I know, myself included, use random this way.

    "This guy came up to me on the street randomly and offered me a free bottle of champagne."

    I can also confirm the usage that has "random" as a synonym for "stranger," or at least "outsider to a social group."

    "This random guy came up to me on the street and offered me a free bottle of champagne"

  29. Stan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    It means more or less what you think, I think. It also seems to indicate amusement at whatever unexpected (or irrelevant) event or subject is being described. I hear it occasionally in the west of Ireland, used invariably by teens and early-twenty-somethings. But rather than "Wow, that's random!" it's more likely to be "Wow, that's, like, so random!" or just "Random(ness)!"

  30. James Martin said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    Armstrong and Miller:

  31. A said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    Oh, the comment about Irish "randomers" reminded me of something similar among my friends (late 20s to early 30s west coast Americans) — we often refer to an extra in a movie or TV show who comes to the foreground somehow (e.g. a one-off episode or scene featuring a previously unseen character) as a "rand-o", presumably short for "random person".

  32. Leonardo Boiko said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    Some parallels from the original Hacker’s Dictionary aka Jargon File, documenting MIT comp-sci speak from circa 1988 (emphasis mine):

    RANDOM, adj.
    1. Unpredictable (closest to mathematical definition); weird. "The system's been behaving pretty randomly."
    5. Gratuitously wrong, i.e., poorly done and for no good apparent reason. For example, a program that handles file name defaulting in a particularly useless way, or a routine that could easily have been coded using only three ac's, but randomly uses seven for assorted non-overlapping purposes, so that no one else can invoke it without first saving four extra ac's.

    Most of the meanings listed are still in active use in computer communities. For more details see .

  33. Chris said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    There was a track on a 1995 album by a group called 311 that makes use of this emerging use of the term, the track being titled "Random."

  34. Kat said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    I'd say Canadian usage extends at least to people in their early 30s – although I don't use it myself, my peer group does.

  35. Kathryn said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    As a 25 y/o AmE speaker, we've taken 'random' one step further and abbreviated it to 'rando' when it applies to a stranger (as in Aoife's "randomer" comment above) e.g. "He went out last night with some rando he met on the Metro."

  36. Elisa said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    I heard this usage frequently in high school (circa 1996-98) in El Paso, Texas. It could refer to anything surprising and had a secondary meeting of "uncool" — i.e. if people from a different, less popular crowd showed up at a party that (or they) would be random. You could say someone was "being really random." It was pervasive.

  37. James said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    This is an (admittedly irrational) pet peeve of mine, which is why I've taken to using "arbitrary" instead of "random" to describe things that aren't truly random (which is, everything, more or less).

  38. Pierre said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    I'm 27 and non native (but worked in a britsh school last year) and to my understanding, that acception differs very little from the first definition you give (and I've always understood that as such), something happening fortuitously.
    The use that's a bit more weird to me is the one I've heard before that is exemplified here, of which definition I could not explain. Some contributions on it date the fad as far back as 2004.

  39. Brian said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    Or consider the first definition from the Jargon File (aka the Hacker's Dictionary) for random: "Unpredictable; weird". Me and my fellow geeks have been saying things like "how random is that?" for many years. (Of course the word random has many other shades of meaning inside computer science proper, so it's already a distinguished word, but I've always assumed that this particular usage of "random" came more from the southern California (i.e. the Valley) influence on hacker culture.)

  40. Daan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    You'll even hear it in Dutch. Dutch does not have a cognate of random meaning 'distributed according to chance' (using willekeurig instead), but young speakers of Dutch could easily say En toen kwam er ineens random een of andere kerel tevoorschijn 'And then some bloke just randomly appeared', with random indicating the speaker's surprise. The word is pronounced as in English. It's probably something picked up from American or British TV shows.

  41. kip said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    As an American in my 20s, this usage is so common to me I'm surprised to find someone encountering it for the first time.

    Isn't it just an extension of the meaning of random in phrases like "random acts of violence"? I wouldn't say "distributed according to chance" quite gets at the meaning of random in that phrase. It means something more like causeless, unpredictable, or unprovoked.

    In the same way, if you say something is "random", you mean that it is something that wouldn't have been predicted by normal causes or logic–like a person deep-frying lottery winnings.

  42. Nate said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    yeah, i think i still use "random" from time to time as a synonym for "unexpected and strange". it's been common since at least middle school, which was close to fifteen years ago for me.

    @Aoife: more common than "randomer" in the (american) circles i run in is "rando", as in, "we had a party last weekend and a bunch of drunk randos crashed it."

  43. Daan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    By the way, GKP, the odds are that those two students you questioned on their usage will then have gone on to describe that as 'quite random'… ;-)

  44. Bryant said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    I'm not sure when I first heard it, but it might have been since high school, or at least for several years. I went to high school in Southern California, and spent my university time in Northern California. I would say it's pretty common. My feeling, too, is that it means "unexpected" or "weird" "doesn't make sense," and often implies a negative emotion, sometimes replaceable with "That's awkward.."

  45. jfruh said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Mr. Pullum is apparently not a faithful reader of Language Logger Ben Zimmer's NYT column, where he discusses "rando," a derivative of this meaning of the word, to mean "an uninvited party guest" when used by University of North Carolina undergrads:

    I'm 36 and a white middle-class college-educated American and I would have to say that both I and people in my peer group use this meaning of the word fairly regularly. I like A said's definition above: "someone having won the lottery would not be 'random', but that person deep-frying all the winnings would be." The kernel of meaning linking "random" to "surprising" is, to use a metaphor, the idea that you throw a dice that encodes the universe's possibility and something unexpected pops up, with an emphasis on the *very* unexpected. I think it can also be used to describe the someone or something whose behavior is erratic and therefore unpredictable, which you can perhaps see better how that comes from the original meaning.

  46. Jonathan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    Quite common in Australia as well among young people.

    I second the definitions of unexpected or unusual but I think that, here at least, things or events described as 'random' tend to be unusual or unexpected in a disconcerting way. For example you would be unlikely to hear:

    "I found a four leaf clover, it was so random!", much more likely: "…and then he started hitting on me, it was so random!"

  47. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    Late forties here. I picked up random from my students some time ago, and it's part of my regular vocab. Note that I'm not one of these professors who tries to be his students' BFF and acquires all the newest slang. This one seemed to fill a gap.

  48. jfruh said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    To add another data point, I remember a friend of mine my freshman year of college who used the word in this sense quite a lot — it wasn't a new or confusing term to me then, but her rather frequent use of it made an impression on me. This would have been in the fall of 1992.

  49. groki said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    sounds like random isn't "Random!" for a lot of us.

  50. Stilgherrian said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    This usage, both the noun and the adjective, would seem to be well-established amongst teenagers here in Australia.

    Only last week I overheads a kid roughly 14yo tell friends that someone had been embarrassed because they'd "said it out loud in front of a random".

    Chris Lilley's 2007 TV series Summer Heights High is a well-researched and gloriously detailed observational comedy set in an Australian high school. One student character, Ja'mie King, uses "random" in a richly varied way — unexpected, rustic and unsophisticated.

    "I'm in Year 11 at Hillford Girls Grammar but I'm doing this random exchange thing for a term at a school called Summer Heights High."
    "Public schools are so random."
    "I love your bins, they're so random."
    "I'm not sitting next to some random emo."

    I recall, but can't find the usage, when she called herself "random" to indicate being quirky and different in a positive sense, "I'm just totally random."

  51. Antony Eagle said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    I agree with other commenters that this sense is not recent, but I'm more interested in the claim that 'The new meaning is nothing like "distributed according to chance"'. I think the new sense is related. In the usage Aoife mentions, where a person may be described as a 'random(er)', the sense of drawing from a population without regard to specific traits of the individual selected is clearly present. And in the sense of 'random' meaning 'unexpected', the connection with chance and unpredictability is not far away.

    But the connection is not entirely straightforward. For an easy case: the outcome of a fair coin toss is presumably random in some intelligible sense. But in no way is either possible outcome of a fair coin toss surprising. So we need something more—unexpectedness, or low probability, at least. But even that may not suffice, if the remark by A above is correct: 'someone having won the lottery would not be "random", but that person deep-frying all the winnings would be!' Both are low probability, but it is in some way consonant with our understanding of lottery cases that low probability events will happen (and so are not entirely unexpected); not so with the really unexpected deep-frying event. Ultimately I suspect this phenomenon arises from some weirdness about how we handle explicitly probabilistic situations as opposed to those where we consider epistemic possibilities in a qualitative fashion.

  52. Marie said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    I'm 25, AmE, SF Bay Area and my friends and I have been saying this for years. We also call people "rando" (pl. "randos"), as in "Did you see that rando talking to Lisa last night?" So far, "rando" seems to be oral only, and it looks weird to type it.

  53. Mark H-A said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    I've heard "random" used like that by friends and strangers near London for almost a decade. I think the meaning "non-specific" as in "some random guy" might be a teensy bit older than "unexpected" as in "wow, that was random" but that could just be the recency illusion at work again…

  54. Bryant said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    I've actually never heard "random(er)" or "rando" used as a noun to refer to a stranger the whole time I've been in California. Interesting.

  55. frances said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Somehow the default word in Adelaide, Australia, since at least 2006, and its ubiquity struck me because I seldom if ever heard it elsewhere in Aust, or an other english-speaking cities I lived in.

    There it was a hugely overused replacement for, cool, interesting, strange, dumb, wow!, excellent!, really? and pretty much any adjective either good or bad … "Aww like, it was … fuckn … random!'

  56. Mr Pond said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Stick it to chaos theory. Or perhaps chaos law (the least logical thing will happen).

    Random: haphazard, unpredicted, chaotic. A departure from the normal pattern of expected events, so weird it's cool.

    At least that how I and young people of my acquaintance seem to use it, as an Midwestern AmE speaker living in Scotland. I'd not heard of 'randomer,' or 'random' meaning 'outsider'; if I said 'this random guy' I would mean someone I didn't know who had no readily apparent cause for his actions, whether directed at me or not ('Some random idiot was yelling at a cop'). In this use, 'random' doesn't refer to the otherness of the individual, but the apparent chaos of the person/action intersection.

    An equivalent phrase to 'That was random,' interestingly, would be, 'That happened.' Said slightly sardonically and/or nervously (as does Steve Carrell's character in Horton Hears a Who). It serves as an acknowledgment of an unsettling and unexpected incident, and unlike 'That was random,' doesn't seem to have any positive connotation.

  57. Emilio said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    You won't believe it, but "random" is often used (untranslated) by many people in their twenties in Rome (Italy). "Unusual, surprising" is only a derivative meaning to us though. The most basic meaning is "arbitrary, with no particular reason" or "arbitrarily chosen", which is close to the scientific meaning. It can be used as an adverb (or a secondary predicate?):

    "Ho scelto un piatto random"
    have1SG chosen a dish random
    "I have picked a dish arbitrarily, the first one I could think of"

    As an attributive adjective:

    "Un tizio random mi ha chiesto di te"
    a guy random me-DAT have asked about you
    "That unknown guy (presumably unrelated to us) asked me about you"

    And you can also translate the very expression cited in the post:

    "Questa era random!"
    that was random
    "What just happened was so arbitrary I'm almost shocked".

    Those who use the word are computer-literate people who use the Internet quite a lot, so I suspect that it was borrowed from colloquial English as used on the web.

  58. Tomasz said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    Canadian English, too. Being in the "youth" demographic bracket, I'd say it's roughly synonymous with strange or unusual.

  59. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    The way I think and use it, it is an adjectival form that can be used to refer to a non sequitur, usually in conversation or in a comparable media (i.e. a novel, a movie…).

  60. logodaedalist said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    It's not really all that new and it's not BrE specific, definitely used a lot in America. I, being of the teenage set, use it in this sense without second thought and I don't think it's all that bad. It seems to me a very logical extension of the other meanings of "random". It's documented IMO pretty well in the last three definitions of .

  61. TO said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    I'm a Pacific Northwest AmE speaker (late 20s) and I use and hear "random" frequently. I don't recall hearing "rando" before though. I wonder if it has reached this area yet.

  62. Ken Brown said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    I think we are seeing evidence here of two distinct, or at least different, families of usage.

    Steve Downey said: "Related usages are noted in the Jargon File, going back at least 25 years."

    Those are either pejorative, or else they cast the subject as normal, default, or *un*surprising. They are in my idiolect (I'm in my fifties and English) I can talk about "J. Random Hacker" or "J. Random Fan" as the default or stereotypical computer programmer or SF fan. And I have been able to – at least among computer programmers and SF fans – for decades, certainly since the 1980s, probably since the 1970s (I bet there is documentation in some fanzines somewhere) The posters here who say that they can say "There were three randos at the party" are not so far away from that. You didn't expect the randos to be there, but there is nothing unusual or surprising about them – the implication is that they are boring or unwanted.

    The new-but-not-quite-as-new-as-GKP-thought usage is different it that it is amused or positive. "OMG that was so random!" usually shows approval, or at least pleasant surprise.

    Does anyone have any evidence for *that* sense from before the 1990s?

    I can date my first memory of it pretty well to a field trip I went on in 2000 as a mature student with some London University undergraduates mostly over 20 years younger than me. Sometime after that I remember a conversation with my daughter (then in her early teens, now 21) and some of her friends who claimed that it was a new usage local to their school and were mildly disappointed to find that I was familiar with it.

    I've heard this positive usage associated with the phrase "random acts of kindness" which seems to have entered popular consciousness sometime about ten years ago. (though a quick Google search finds people claiming to have used it, or variants much earlier) But I have no idea if there really is a connection.

  63. Dan K said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    My impression has always been that there's a sensible connection between the more traditional sense of random and the newer sense. When you come across something that doesn't fit in well, there's the sense that it was selected randomly in the sense that it's unconstrained (or less constrained) by context. From some perspectives, everything that happens is a combination of predictable and unpredictable influences, and it wouldn't be too far afield to describe events that contain an undue mix of the latter as random.

    If I had to guess, I would say I've been using it that way for 25 years (and I've always lived in the US), but I could be off by a few years. Maybe I have some in my email record.

    This feels somehow related to the question of whether or not it's okay to describe something as more or less unique. Maybe just another bit of input for the pedantic-o-meter. (someone want to tell me why i included that 'o'?)

  64. Jesse Sheidlower said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    62 responses, and no one has mentioned that this is in the OED, in the sense in question? Hmph.

    We have the adjective "colloq. (orig. U.S. Computing). Peculiar, strange; nonsensical, unpredictable, or inexplicable; unexpected," with a first quotation from 1971 in _The Tech_ (the student newspaper of MIT), and the noun "colloq. (orig. U.S. Computing). A person who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time, a person who is there by chance; spec. (depreciative) a person who is not a member of a particular group; an outsider," also with a first quotation from _The Tech_ in 1971 ("Students, profs, employees, randoms–send in your feedback cards..with comments").

  65. stormboy said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I'm British and wasn't familiar with this usage until I moved to Montreal for university (2000-03), when I started hearing it a lot.

    It doesn't feel strange in a British context but my (unquantifiable) impression is that it is not nearly as widespread in the UK as it was in Canada (at the time). But this may well be due to the fact that I'm no longer surrounded by university students on a daily basis…

  66. Brett said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    The fact that the first OED citation is from The Tech is interesting, since "random" has a particular meaning when applied to MIT students. In the late 1960s, the Institute, in a housing crunch, bought an old apartment building a few blocks north of campus. They turned it into a small extra dormitory, named Random Hall. So "random" can be an adjective or noun referring to somebody who lives at Random Hall. This is particularly apt for the meaning of "random" being discussed here, because the dorm developed a rather unusual culture. This was fed by its small size, isolated location, and probably also by its name. I don't know how much of this had developed by the date of the article, however; it might all just be a coincidence.

  67. Kurt said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    I'm from Edinburgh and I do use 'random' in that way.

    "Some random guy came up to me yesterday and…"

    "I've signed up for some exercise classes."
    "That's a bit random."

  68. Jonathon said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    62 responses, and no one has mentioned that this is in the OED, in the sense in question?

    I was just about to mention it myself. Obviously the sense has developed some further nuances, but the core of the meaning is there. But it is rather surprising how much its use has exploded in the last ten years.

  69. Doreen said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    Bah, stupid non-alphanumeric characters in URLs.

  70. groki said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    umm, Doreen? that was random.


  71. Robert said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    This usage occurs in the 1995 Alicia Silverstone movie _Clueless_ (loosely based on Jane Austen's _Emma_).

    It occurs in connection to a minor plot point, which is the Silverstone character's effort to expand her vocabulary. Since the movie was about rich, fashion-forward teenagers it included some real and some made-up trends, including a lot of slang, much of which then became incorporated into the usage of real teenagers. I don't know if that particular usage is among the set that originated with the movie or if it pre-existed it.

  72. Geoff said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    As a Canadian I first began hearing (and adopting) this usage in high school (2002-2006). At that time, a particular absurdist brand of humour was coming into vogue: films like Napoleon Dynamite and TV series like Stella as well as the notorious Family Guy cutaway gags epitomized this style. "Random" came to refer to something startlingly odd in this vein: I think the connotation is a mite stronger than "unusual," and suggests something really coming "out of left field." Daan aptly points out the self-illustrating quality of Dr Pullum's query. If I said, "I found a fully wrapped chocolate bar in my jacket pocket," random would be a bit strong. But I might say, "I was waiting for the subway and this flash mob turned up wearing underwear and matching neckties – how random is that?" Of course, as with any phrase, some will dilute the meaning to a greater or lesser extent.

  73. John Cowan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    Quoth the Jargon File also (in Appendix A):

    "The word hack doesn't really have 69 different meanings”, according to MIT hacker Phil Agre. “In fact, hack has only one meaning, an extremely subtle and profound one which defies articulation. Which connotation is implied by a given use of the word depends in similarly profound ways on the context. Similar remarks apply to a couple of other hacker words, most notably random."

  74. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    I do not understand objections to this word, especially the overblown rejection at Urban Dictionary. (I mean, holy shit–did you read the entry?)

    The mathematical objection is especially stoopid, if indeed the sense is associated with groups like the Model Railroad Club and propagated by computer cultures. Software could not do much of what they do without built-in random number generators, and countless varieties of software at that, from the sublime to the ridiculous. If anyone has a right to be upset that "random" was co-opted, it should be the computer geeks. But apparently, quite the opposite is the case. (It makes a good narrative, anyway.)

    Does the word fill a need, or does it not? Clearly it does, and perhaps more than one. Can it be overused to the point of absurdity? Of course, but this is true of any word, especially modifiers (which is why every quarter-generation requires a new word for "topping!" "capital!" "keen!" "fab!" "cool!" "awesome!" . . . )

    Perhaps an ironic consequence of the word is this: when a single word is applied to what had heretofore been regarded as distinct concepts, and shared sense of meaning is identified or produced. In this case, ideas such as "idiosyncratic," "flighty," "unpredictable," "out of the blue," now converge on a single node. To wit: "random" has imposed a quasi-organization structure on the language. Or maybe that's an illustration of chaos theory after all? Or I'm reaching?

  75. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    "Well, that was random!" is definitely something that I say. I think there's some overlap in meaning between "that was unexpected" and "how could that have arisen other than sheer chance?"–although no one would ever say the latter. I also say "I randomly decided to go to the coffeeshop for lunch," but 1) my intended meaning is closer to "spontaneously" or "to my surprise" than "by choosing blindly from among many possibilities" and 2) my mother would never use the word in that way. :)

    Even in the relatively venerable Hacker's Dictionary, the usages go beyond simply "distributions based on chance," and a lot of terms that show up in that work generalized into geekdom and then into the broader internet-using and "youth" (quote marks because I don't really qualify) population. In fact, the second definition in the first entry under "random" there is "weird" in this version of it: I think this is the connection that made its way into the OED per Jesse Sheidlower's comment.

    There is a fair amount of deeply nerdy slang that's made its way into mainstream youth speech, although it can be confusing to my (math/CS) husband as to what has and hasn't (I had to tell him that "J. Random [person-noun]" hasn't, as far as I know).

    I agree with TO that "rando" seems to be newer to me–I'm in my early 30s and live in the SF Bay Area.

  76. Joyce Melton said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    I think it comes from gaming. "Random encounters" from tables in games like Dungeons and Dragons, originally, then spread to the similar occurrences in video games and from there to everyday speech among the young.

    There also are computer languages with built-in usage for pseudo-random numbers where the function is just called "random", so that may have influenced.

    Note: the British comma outside the quotes above. This usage seems to be spreading on the internet and now that I've seen it, it looks more sensible than the American way of doing it.

  77. Jordi Alonso said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    I recently turned 19, and I've been using "random" coloquially for at least 9 years.

  78. Doreen (again) said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Have I been hit with the banhammer? I'll try to post these links for the third time, and once again for the record, I'm not connected with this product — just wanted to point out that Rowntree's marketing department is aware of this meaning as well:

  79. Melissa K Fox said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    As others have said, it's been in regular AmE usage for close to twenty years (I'm 33 and have been hearing it since high school) – which is dialectally pretty close to a generation, isn't it? – as an adjective and a noun.

    I may also point out that the sainted Douglas Adams gave Arthur Dent a daughter named Random in "Mostly Harmless", ca. 1992.

  80. John F said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

    I first heard it at university 10 years ago. Been using it myself ever since. I particularly enjoy using the form 'oh, the randomness'.

  81. Rube said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    The restaurant review in this week's issue of The New Yorker has this:

    " The laziness and cynicism on display here typify what is making the Village an increasingly terrible place to get dinner. ..[Long paragraph about the place's horrible decor and service]

    " Randomly enough, the cooking's not bad."

    Here, "randomly" seems to be used as an exact synonym for "oddly" or "unexpectedly".

  82. Chandra said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    I'm not entirely convinced that the meaning is new at all. The first definition given on for "random" says "occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern", and it seems to me that this is exactly how young'uns-these-days (including people in their thirties, my own age group) are using the word. When something occurs without any obvious reason, it is of course often unexpected and surprising.

    The context and/or phrasing that "random" is being used in may be new, but I don't really think the definition has changed in any significant way. It seems to me that grown out of common usages such as "random acts of violence/kindness", which refer to unexpected events with no seeming pattern.

  83. Kyle Goetz said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    The usage in the US is at least attested to 2003, when created the "random" board with the express purpose of it being a board where you can post anything you want without the expectation of adhering to any specific categories.

  84. Glen Gordon said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    This meaning is all over the English-speaking world, I believe, because the next generation living in Central Canada are no different. One might say that Canadians in this respect are not so "random", as it were.

    But I don't think this semantic shift is all that "random", in either sense. In the day-to-day world, we expect people or things to make sense. When they don't, they seem random (in the original sense). And this can be unexpected and "random" (in the secondary sense). Hence "randomness" is equated with "novelty".

    And that, my friends, is soooooo random! Like omg! What will those youngin's think up next. Lol.

  85. mollymooly said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    In "Microserfs" (1995), the narrator-diarist's reaction when his friend comes out of the closet is, "How random." I remember being struck by this at the time: it was a novel nuance, satisfyingly apposite.

  86. Rubrick said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    I'm going to start reacting to surprising events with "That's so stochastic!"

  87. Penny said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    It's definitely over a decade old; I recall it being used by somewhat geeky American kids when I was in eighth grade, so around 1996.

  88. groki said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    @Rubrick "That's so stochastic!"

    leading me to the Normal Distribution, and thence to the wild conjecture* that the young 'uns will soon replace random with: "That's so normal!" (with a "bad means good" bonus).

    *unlikely, of course, to be accurate–but oh so sweet if so.

  89. Jongseong Park said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    I may have heard it before, but the first time I definitely remember noticing this usage was when I went to the US for university in 2001 in the Boston area. There this usage was so rampant that I couldn't help but notice it. I admit I began to use 'random' this way occasionally, though only with people of my generation. I think I've classed this with 'college speak' in my mind.

    Maybe university settings have been conducive to the spread of this kind of colloquial usage of a word usually restricted to technical contexts.

  90. fog said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    Last week I caught myself and said "er, not that they distributed by chance, they were just weird!" because I realized it was somewhat ambiguous. One hazard of casual conversations in the lab.

  91. DexX said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    Another one for Australia, here.

    I know a lot of people hate this usage of the word, but it makes sense from a certain perspective: that of the non sequitur.

    A non sequitur, in popular usage at least, refers to a random event occurring instead of a logically expected one.

    I suspect this usage was seeded by popular phrases like "a random encounter" or "a random event" which pop up all the time in popular culture.

    Oh, and on your comments page, "URL" is written "URI". Who is this Uri guy? :)

  92. Bob Moore said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    As several of the posts have hinted at, I believe this usage originated in MIT student slang at least 45 years ago. (It was well-established by the time I entered as a freshman in 1966.) In 1968, MIT named a dormitory "Random Hall" (, which they originally planned to name "Random House", until the publishing company of that name objected. From MIT, it spread to computer-science culture more generally, which is surely where Bill Gates picked it up.

    I also believe that MIT student slang may be the original source of the use of "bites" intransitively to express disapproval of the subject — as in the movie title "Reality Bites". This was also well-established at MIT in the 1960s, long before I ever heard it in general popular culture.

  93. Ellis said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    When I went up to Oxford (1997) 'random' in this sense was listed in various freshers' handbooks and such-like publications as Oxford slang along with all the other shibboleths ('scouts', 'sconcing' &c.). Had never heard it before, but have heard it since enough to disabuse me of any idea that it was in any way an Oxford coinage.

  94. kenny said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    yeah, I've been saying that since at latest middle school, which was ten years ago. It means not only that something is unexpected, but specifically than it does not follow from anything previous.

  95. jaymc said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    This usage features prominently in a 2005 song by British rapper Lady Sovereign (b. 1985), appropriately titled "Random." (The key line in the chorus: "Everybody get random.")

    You can hear it here:

  96. Margrit said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 12:17 am

    My children (early 20s, Australia) use 'random' in most of the meanings mentioned. Recent conversation:

    Me: Are you going to be home tonight? I've got people coming for dinner.

    21yo: No, I'll go out if there's going to be a bunch of randoms here.

    Me: They're not random, they're my friends.

    21yo: But I don't know them, so they're random.

    Me: Forgot – you're still the centre of the universe.
    21yo: Yep.

  97. John F said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 6:14 am

    @DexX OK I'll bite. He's Uri Geller. Rather than the Url of Essex. Is that random enough? :D

    URI: Uniform Resource Identifier. URL: Uniform Resource Locator. The W3C prefers the usage of URI over URL.

  98. Samantha said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 6:24 am

    Yup, uesd it in high school in the midwest, circa 1996-97. In my mind, it retained the meaning of "occuring by chance," for, as others have said, isn't it indeed random when something weird, strange, or unexpected happens? But I used it in the senses described above.

  99. EB said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 6:39 am

    I first heard and started using "random" when I moved to an American-curriculum school in Japan in 1999 at the age of 13.

    I remember specifically because that summer, I visited a friend who was still at my former school. I was surprised to find that she now knew the word as well. Neither of us had known the word when still at school together the previous year.

    I had assumed that this word was specifically AmE, because my new school was heavily US-influenced — while my former school, an international school in Malaysia, had a more balanced population. Apparently this wasn't the case.

    But of course, international schools are a melting pot for dialects of English… My feeling has always been that "random" as modern slang came from the US.

  100. dan said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    …and made (sort of) popular back in 2004 by pint-sized rapper Lady Sovereign. She makes it rhyme with "man dem" and "gyal dem", which I find refreshing.

  101. dan said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    d'oh, missed jaymc's comment just above, sorry

  102. Kyle A said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    My son started saying about five or six years ago. I am 47, he is now 16.

    The first time I remember his saying it was in reference to a teenager on a skateboard who went down a railing and crashed into the sidewalk below. "That's so random," he said.

    I said, "What? What do you mean by random."

    He said, "I mean random. You know. Why did he do such a stupid thing. It seems like it was for no reason."


    He also says it when somebody says a non sequitur in conversation.


    Frankly, as an old guy, the new usage annoys me. There are plenty of good words to use for such meanings, and it will do young people no good to obscure the more traditional meaning. What word will they use when something truly is random, such as a random number?

  103. David said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    It's quite popular in Swedish youth slang as well. I would say it's definitely a Noughties phenomenon: I'm born in the mid-80s, and it certainly wasn't an ordinary word when I was in my teens, but it seems to be for people who are born ca. 1990 and later. gives the following definition (my translation):

    plucked out of thin air, incoherent, something which has nothing to do with the ongoin conversation/event, illogical, irrational. Often comical. Can also be used to describe a person who suffers from "randomness".

    – … Och helt plötsligt, mitt under mattelektionen skrek Johan: "JAG ÄR BÖG!"
    – Haha, shit vad random! [note the common Swedish interjection 'shit', borrowed from English]
    – Jag vet, han är hur random som helst.

    '…And all of a sudden, in the middle of maths class, Johan shouted "I'M GAY!"'
    'Hahah, wow that's random!'
    'I know, he's really random.' [lit. 'he's as random as you like', i.e. 'he's as random as you can imagine', i.e. 'he's very random']

  104. Samara said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    When I was an undergrad in theater school in Los Angeles, I remember a discussion of "random" — we were talking about what distinguished Northern Californians from Southern Californians in terms of their speech, and the general agreement seemed to be that "hella" was the Shibboleth of NorCal, and "random," used as you describe, branded SoCal — particularly if the r is rolled slightly for emphasis.

  105. JP Villanueva said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    I'm from Seattle, and a high school teacher; we use "random" to describe an amusing non sequitur (shoutout to DexX); not just "weird" or "unexpected."

    Secondarily, it is used to describe something/someone anonymous, "some random dude just walked up to me and told me I looked good."

    I've never heard people being referred to as "randoms" or "randos," but I'm sure I would have understood in context.

  106. Eli Anne said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    The term is frequently used in Scott Westerfeld's novels Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras. In the novels, a "random" is a person who's never received surgery to make them prettier/better, and is therefore as nature made them.

  107. E said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    I've lived in Southern California all my life (currently 22) and I'd say that "random" in the sense of "weird, bizarre, unusual, surprising" is a fairly normal part of my vocabulary– but one that I perceive as something only young people say.

  108. SJ said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    One more here for "random"/"rando" as a noun, referring to a generic person with no particular connection to the speaker. I've also heard it used with a derogatory connotation, to mean a person intruding on a social group. As in: "Why are there so many randos at this party? Do they even know anyone who lives here?"

  109. Julie said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

    I have a friend with a t-shirt that says "I'm not as random as you think I salad."

  110. MLA said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Advertising execs love the rAndOm concept, too. It sells! Nestlé Rowntree's are on a conscious mission to "make the world a more random place" with their gummy sweets called, yeah, you guessed it…

  111. ddm said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    Well I was in the MIT dorm right next to Random House starting in 1968, and I can attest that random was a frequent interjection in our speech, with nothing ever insinuated to associate it with the dorm. My impression was that it was a standard part of MIT argot and had been for some time — drove my parents crazy when I transplanted it back to Philadelphia. When I later got into the AI lab at MIT the word's frequency went up markedly. When the Hacker's Dictionary and its precursors came out it was just writing up long-established usage. I don't use it much anymore, but just noticed my 15 year old starting to use it — hard to imagine he go it from me.

  112. The Tufted Titmouse said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    Yeah "random" is old. But in a video I saw just yesterday I heard a new use for "look" that Language Log hasn't yet commented upon: "It's a bad look."

    The linked YouTube clip shows two teens becoming overwhelmed by their first encounter with the hard sell.

    For all you Scientology people man…

    This a bad look, man; this a bad look.

    You cannot be doing this to me. Please, do not do this again. It's a bad look.

    Not only a bad look for me. It's a bad look for you. It's a bad look for the kids, y'know. Just a bad look overall. Do not do that stuff, please.

  113. Jubin said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    I'm 22, and I've been hearing it since at least 7th or 8th grade. In our high school group of friends, the attempt of a friend to type "random" over chat resulted in the coinage of "randso." "Randso" soon started to replace the sense of the word "random" being discussed, and actually made some headway among people who found using "random" to mean "unexpected" distasteful.

  114. Bloix said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    My college-age children use it to mean aggressively stupid, idiotic, particularly in reference to non-sequitors (either in speech or action). It's always pejorative.

  115. Simon said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    Among my friends (NZ) it actually seems to be used as a noun more often than an adjective. "Who's gonna be at the party?" "I dunno, the usual gang, but I think Jeff's bringing some randoms."

  116. ENKI-][ said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

    Common usage here as well. I'm in my early-twenties, and I live in new england; I've been hearing it for at least ten years now.

  117. jessebeller said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 1:35 am

    i think this goes at least as far back as star wars episode iii: a new hope (1977):

    obi wan kenobi: your father's light saber. this is the weapon of a jedi knight. not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

  118. Amanda Grimm said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 5:26 am

    Yes, we used it with that meaning when I was in middle school in California (1997-2000). And Dylan Moran mentions it in his stand-up DVD 'What it is'.

  119. abby said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    Among my sisters, we have made the distinction between "good" random and "bad" random. Good random is when the unusual is good- its lack of a connection to the things around it is the base of its humor or appeal, as the non sequiturs one encounters in sketch comedy (such as Monty Python, with their "and now for something completely different") are humorous for their abandonment of established ideas. "Good" random marks a departure from the formulaic.
    "Bad" random can be epitomized with this example.
    I had a friend who didn't quite understand the difference between the two, and for one of my birthdays, she gifted me with such: A small plastic shovel, a rain poncho, and a cheap slinky.
    She thought herself quite hilarious and was pleased with herself immensely. "It's so random!" She exclaimed.
    Yes, it was random; it was random in the sense that these items had no connection with each other, my interests, or anything else which might make them a suitable present.
    It was at this exact moment I fell out of love with this phrase.

  120. Sumbuddy said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    Definitely goes back to 1993. I've found a use in "Christian History" magazine: "The revolution failed, partly because Luther, sickened with the anarchy and random violence, urged the princes to brutally suppress their subjects".

  121. Richard said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    I think it's incorrect to say "The new meaning is nothing like 'distributed according to chance'". It's a very closely related meaning. In the parlance you're talking about, saying "that's such a random hat!" is the same as saying "as far as I can tell or care to think about, that hat was chosen according to chance!".

  122. Pranesh said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    In India, this usage of "unusual" or "unexpected" is quite common amongst English speakers, at least of my generation (college students and recent graduates). Sometimes "random" is used as a noun for an unknown or unremarkable person, probably as a contraction of "random person". Strangely, these two meanings can be contradictory: remarkable (unusual) and unremarkable.

    A: Who was that?
    B: I don't know, just some random.

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