The Confusing Thing about Random Facts

1 Comment

Every now and then, I see something on facebook, tumblr, or some other sector of the internet that asks participants to list a certain number of random facts about themselves. I rarely do this. It is not necessarily because I believe such surveys to be cliché or pointless; it is rather because I am confused about what determines the randomness of a fact. Does “random”, in this context, mean trivial? Does it mean that the person constructing the list is not to spend much time thinking about the facts or putting them in any particular order? Does it simply mean that the facts do not necessarily need to be related to each other in any way? My observations of things that other people post on the internet has led me to come to the conclusion that the word “random” is defined in many different ways, and that the tone and nature of a list of “random facts” will differ greatly from individual to individual. Some examples of things that can be classified as “random facts” include personal anecdotes, opinions, self-descriptions of personality or physical traits, details about one’s family or pets, personal biographical information, or a detail about one’s hobbies or interests. It would seem that the entire point of “random fact” lists is that everyone has a different idea of what kinds of facts should be on these lists. You may not learn a lot about a person by what facts about themselves they choose to share in this type of context, but what you do learn about them might be interesting.

As a nerd and a smart-aleck, I am incapable of simply accepting this. The reason for my objection is that the word “random” has a specific mathematical meaning. Granted, this mathematical meaning differs from the word’s standardly used definition as given by English dictionaries, which say that “random” means purposeless or haphazard. Normally, it is my policy to trust dictionaries. However, I believe that the official mathematical definition of the word “random” is worth noting. According to the statistics class I took a year ago (and in which I got good grades, thereby justifying my insistent use of the concepts and definitions I acquired from it), “random” means that any possible outcome has an equal chance of occurring. For example, the roll of a fair die is random because each of the sides has an equal chance of being the side facing up when the die lands. Picking a card out of a standard deck is random because each card has an equal chance of being selected. Using a random number generator is random because any number within the selected range has an equal chance of being produced. Listing facts about yourself is not random because, no matter how purposelessly and haphazardly you are doing it, you are deliberately selecting the facts that you will use.

The only way to make a list of facts random is to randomly select these facts from a larger list of facts. That is to say, in order to generate a short list of random facts, a person should first write a long list of facts and then use a completely fair method to randomly choose the predetermined number of facts from the long list. This raises another question, though. How comprehensive should the long list of facts be? It can’t actually contain every possible fact about the person in question, because such a list would be infinitely long. I think that might actually be literally true, but even if it isn’t, the list would be extremely long and therefore inconvenient to use. Thus, I suggest that the list should contain only those facts which the writer of the list deems internet-worthy based upon its coolness and the likelihood that others would be interested in reading it. For example, I might include some facts about my musical preferences or my favorite books or movies, but not a fact about my favorite brand of peanut butter. Alternatively, someone who considers peanut butter to be a fascinating or important topic might use such a fact.

It’s too bad I have a lot of homework to do tonight.  Otherwise, I would love to spend some time compiling a long list of facts about myself in order to prepare for the next time the internet wants to know some random facts about me.

Advertisements

Alacrity and Other Words

1 Comment

The scrabble dictionary kind of blends the two definitions.

Today, I discovered something which has shattered my view of the universe. (Or at least my view of the English language) It turns out that, for years, I’ve been wrong about what the word alacrity means. I’d always thought that alacrity was just a fancy and particularly awesome word for speed, but it turns out that it really means ‘cheerful readiness’. Actually, Google informs me that ‘speed’ is an acceptable alternate definition, but it goes without saying that I should have been aware of the primary definition.

A sister without a shoe

I still remember the day when I heard the word alacrity for the first time. It was a Sunday morning when I was a small child. We were about to go to church, and almost everyone’s shoes were missing. (For much of my childhood, it was necessary for my family to set aside shoe-hunting time before any departure from the house) As the shoes failed to appear and the danger of being late for church increased, my mother requested greater alacrity in our search. I asked her what alacrity meant, and she answered me, but now that I think back on it, I don’t remember exactly what she said. Did I immediately forget, and then later replace the definition in my brain with something else and attribute that answer to her? Or did she tell me that alacrity meant speed? I suppose I could ask her, but she probably doesn’t specifically remember the incident and won’t be able to tell me exactly what she said. I shall be left wondering where I got my misinformation, even while I am lamenting the (almost) non-existence of the definition of one of my favorite words.  This disturbing realization forces me to face a troubling question: should I remove ‘alacrity’ from my list of really cool words, or should I keep it on the list, but adjust the terms of my penchant for it in order to reflect my new understanding of its true meaning?

My list of really cool words doesn’t actually exist in a written form, although it has been my intention to write it, mainly because I like making lists. Here are a few other words that would be on that list, all of which I have just looked up to thoroughly ensure that they really do mean what I think they mean. (Disclaimer: In case it isn’t painfully obvious, I don’t know any Latin whatsoever, so all of the Latin words used here came from the all-knowing internet, and I may have used them incorrectly)

 

Decimate (verb)

Definition: To kill or destroy most of something

Etymology: From the Latin ‘decimare’, which technically means to kill exactly one tenth of a group. Although it had never occurred to me before, I guess it ought to be pretty obvious from the ‘deci’ that it had something to do with the number ten. That’s interesting. Now I’m really glad that I decided to look up these words.

 

Trepidation (noun)

Definition: Fear and agitation

Etymology: The word dates back to around 1600 and comes from the Latin word ‘trepidationem’, which boringly means the exact same thing as the current English word. It is worth noting, though, that it is related to the words ‘tremble’ and ‘tremulous’.

 

Decapitated (adjective)

Definition: Having had one’s head cut off

(Note: It’s also a verb, as the past tense of ‘decapitate’. One who has been decapitated is decapitated, which is a very decapacitating condition.)

Etymology: The word ‘decapitate’ comes from the French word decapiter, which comes from the Latin ‘decapitare’. ‘Capitis’ means head, and ‘de-‘ indicates that the head isn’t there anymore.

 

Simultaneously (adverb)

Definition: At the same time

Etymology: It originated in the 1650s and comes from the Latin ‘simultaneus’, which predictably means ‘at the same time’. The root word is ‘simul’, from which we also get the word ‘similar’.

The reason I like this word is that I know how to spell it. I’m a terrible speller and rely heavily upon Google and spellcheck. They frequently have cause to correct me, but all three of us agree about the spelling of ‘simultaneously’, which makes me feel very clever.

 

Flabbergasted (adjective)

Definition: Greatly surprised

Etymology: Apparently, the origin is uncertain, because the only information I can find is that some magazine article in 1772 listed it as a newly invented word.

 

Subsequent (adjective)

Definition: Closely following (as in a list or chronological order)

Etymology: It comes from the French ‘subséquent’, which comes from the Latin ‘subsequentem’, which literally means ‘closely following’. I’m a bit confused about that because I thought ‘sub-‘ generally meant ‘under’, not ‘close’.

 

Incidentally (adverb)

Definition: Used to introduce a new but somewhat related point

Etymology: The root word, ‘incident’, comes from the identical French word, which comes from the Latin word ‘incidere’. The prefix ‘in-‘ apparently can mean ‘on’, and ‘cidere’ apparently means ‘fell again’. Now I’m kind of confused. Apparently, the current meaning of ‘incident’ dates to the middle of the 15th century, and the current use of the word ‘incidentally’ has only existed since about 1925.

This word had to go on the list because my sisters laugh at me for using it so frequently.

“Incidentally,” I sometimes will say, “what time is it?”

“Incidentally,” they will respond, “we don’t know.”

Then I will explain to them that one never answers a question with ‘incidentally’, and they will explain to me that they don’t care, because they were only using that word to tease me.

 

Discombobulated (adjective)

Definition: Confused and disoriented, mixed up

Etymology: Originally, the word was ‘discombobricated’. It was invented in 1834 by some Americans who thought they were being clever by making up funny sounding words. What an odd thing to do. That kind of thing would never happen in this century. Oh, wait…

 

Camaduka (noun)

Definition: I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.

Etymology: My sisters and I invented it.

Most commonly used in the expression ‘Great camaduka!’