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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: gambling


(1980’s | academese (science) | “randomly generate”)

A term born of empirical science — experiment design and statistics. Now it is used primarily to talk about clinical trials; an essential part of testing a medication or treatment is “randomizing” the patients — that is, making sure that those getting the treatment and those getting the placebo are sorted by non-human means, to eliminate as much bias in the results as possible. Such processes are easiest to envision in a binary world, where there are only A and B, and the category you belong to is “decided” by mechanical means. Computer programmers picked it up very soon, before most of us knew there was such a thing as computer programming, so by 1980 “randomize” had a number of technical uses, which for the most part it still has. In the eighties and nineties, I found examples from other endeavors as well: poker; esthetics (choreographer Merce Cunningham “randomized” his decisions at particular junctures by throwing the I Ching to determine the outcome); CD players; creating standardized tests; listing candidates on a ballot. It most often has to do with some sort of testing, medical or otherwise.

An “-ize” verb, “randomize” doesn’t sound as clunky (to me, at least) as “incentivize,” “weaponize,” or “monetize.” Probably because it’s rooted in science and mathematics; ize-itis is easier to take with technical terms. And “randomize” hasn’t filtered into everyday speech much. It’s a word you come across in print occasionally, but it hasn’t exactly taken the vernacular by storm. It seems like a modest enough word, filling a need without taking up too much room.

A related yet unrelated word is “rando.” It’s sort of a portmanteau of random and weirdo — the rando has a definite hint of unpleasantness, not someone you want to have to deal with. (Though the highest-ranked definitions on don’t give the term a negative implication, and at least one on-line source thinks randos are a good thing, so the jury is out.) An unrelated yet related word is “anonymize,” to which my attention was drawn by Lovely Liz from Queens, as in “anonymize data.” It’s how to divorce you from your personal information and preferences; more precisely, it’s how internet titans vacuum up everything worth knowing about your on-line habits while creating the illusion that your name and identity can’t be connected with any of it. But anonymizing is also part of randomizing; in fact, removing patients’ names is an essential step in the process.

Random isn’t as simple as it sounds. Take a simple example: if you flipped a coin and it came up heads ten times in a row, you wouldn’t think that was random at all. Some ordering force must be at work, right? Yet it’s perfectly possible for a fair coin to land on the same face ten times in row. There doesn’t even have to be a balancing streak of ten tails later on, but over time the number of heads and tails will even out. In a truly random sequence or assortment, you will almost certainly find stretches that appear to be grouped logically, but that’s just how it shakes out; it’s not proof, or even evidence, of a master intelligence running things. We want to call random only that which is jumbled, devoid of an obvious organizing principle. But the random may look very organized if you focus on a small section.

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