Random thoughts

It irks me when people use the word “random” as I have in the title to this article. As any cryptologist will tell you, human thoughts are never statistically random, which is why we are so poor at picking passwords that can’t be guessed. To me, the word “haphazard” seems much better at describing the process of collecting thoughts together with no clear goal or purpose.

A little digging in the OED informed me that I am not actually correct in this pedantry. “Random” is a perfectly acceptable adjective meaning “arranged without goal or purpose”, in which form its use dates to the mid-17th century (so it isn’t a modern corruption). In point of fact, “haphazard” entered the language slightly later in the same century, and in this sense the words are synonymous.

However, I wonder if it wouldn’t be useful to enforce more of a distinction in the future, whatever the history of the language. Statistical randomness is a sense of “random” that came into use in the 19th century, but is increasingly important in modern times as we are persuaded of this fact or that fact by use of statistical analysis. If a drug is declared safe on the basis of “random” trials, you had better hope they are not merely haphazard.

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