Random: What’s In a Word?

Millennials catch a lot of flack for using the word random incorrectly.  For example, “Like, this totally random dude came up to me and, like, said ‘Whatever!'”

Dictionary.com defines random as “unpredictable,” “lacking uniformity,” or “occurring without definite aim”  Or more technically, “a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.”

Millennials often use random to mean unexpected, which is similar to unpredictable. I once had someone say to me, “Hey, I have a random question,” and then he proceeded to ask about something specific that had been on his mind. Maybe he assumed I wouldn’t expect the question, but he certainly had given it some forethought and had a definite aim.

Young people also talk about random hook-ups, though I assume they’re choosing the person they want to sleep with rather than pulling names from a hat. On the other hand, they might not have gone to the party with a preset plan of sleeping with that specific person, which is why the event seemed random to them.

Other times random means miscellaneous. Paul Hiebert lists a few of his pet peeves, including a New York Magazine article “Six Random Michael Jackson Pop-Culture Moments.” Hiebert lists several other meanings of random, including inconsequential, unlikely, strange, silly, and capricious.

But in defense of Millennials, I should point out that word meanings often change.  Mad actually means crazy, but Americans use it to mean angry. The British could take us to task for that, but mad as angry is so entrenched in American English, and consequently international pop culture, that it’s not a battle worth fighting.

Imagine this exchange:

“That guy is random.”

“Yeah, he came out of nowhere.”

“No, I mean he’s running.”


Random entered the English language twice. The Old English word rinnan meant to flow or to run, and was derived from the Old High German rennen, meaning to run.

Though the Frankish invaders of Gaul mostly dropped their old German dialect in favor of the local Latin-based dialect that would become French, some old Frankish words nonetheless survived. The Frankish word rant meant running, and the Norman French conquest of England in 1066 brought a derivative with it – randon, meaning “rush, disorder, force, impetuosity.”

Random evolved from running fast; to rushing in a disordered or impetuous way; to no specific aim; to today’s selection process in which all outcomes have equal probability, which overlaps with popular uses connoting capricious, unexpected, and inconsequential.

In a way, then, the following dialogue is not so incoherent:

“Dude, like, the etymology of random is, like, random.”

“Word, bro.”


Zombie: What’s In a Word?

I remember watching Night of the Living Dead in college 20 years ago, and thinking it was one of the funniest movies I`d ever seen. But it wasn`t meant to be a comedy. AMC`s tv series The Walking Dead is more sophisticated, and the special effects are far superior.

American`s fascination this Haitian voodoo legend goes way back. The word zombie if of West African origin. It`s first mention in English comes from Robert Southey`s 1819 history of Brazil, but it was W.B. Seabrook`s 1929 novel The Magic Island that popularized zombies in the United States.

According to one anthropology site, zombies started out as really annoying people that the community wanted to get rid of. A voodoo priest would administer a substance containing just enough tetrodoxin to make the person appear dead. The priest would then resurrect the person, who perhaps due to the toxic drugs couldn`t remember a thing and appeared to be mindless.

There`s no scientific evidence that any of this is true.

Two contenders for the word of origin are zumbi, a Kikongo word meaning fetish, and the Kimbundu snake god nZambi, which was associated with the spirits of dead people. Kimbundu is a Bantu language. In Kikongo, another Bantu language, Nzambi a Mpungu is the a fatherly sky god who created the world, and Christian missionaries in the 1500s to what is now the Congo used this name to represent God.

Possibly related to zombie is the Spanish word sombra, which is derived from the Latin umbra, both referring to a ghost. There’s likely no connection between sombra and zumbi, but the similar sounds and the fact that both refer to dead people could have created a loose association.

According to DNews, the original goal was to release a person from their mindless state. But if that doesn`t work I guess you could just smash their head in.

Slut: What’s In a Word?

It’s not nice to call a woman a slut. But maybe it’s not about sex as much as we think. At least not originally.

The origin of slut is uncertain. We don’t know where it’s been, though it’s gotten around. But there are some guesses. The English Oxford Dictionary encourages us to compare slut with the German word schlutt (which today is confined to a dialect).

Slut originally meant “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance.” A 16th century English translation of Stefano Guazzo’s Civil Conversation contains this gem: “I haue noted often those dames which are so curious in their attire, to be verie sluttes in their houses.”

I guess that could have a double meaning, but I don’t think Guazzo meant it that way.

Its medieval use wasn’t strictly gendered even if it did usually refer to women. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Yeoman’s Tale, has the character ask, “Why is thy lord so sluttish, I thee pray.”

Slovenliness is often associated with poverty, and as recently as the 1800s slut could be used without sexual connotations. In The Saint’s Tragedy Charles Kingsley refers to “almshouses for sluts whose husbands died.”

Associated with sloppiness is cleaning up the mess, as in this diary entry from 1663: “Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better.”

How did slut as a sloppy woman migrate to a poor woman, and finally to a sexually indiscriminate woman?

Dunno. Slovenliness and poverty have long been attributed to low morals (poverty being systemic is a very recent idea). And perhaps prostitution, being a fate more common among poor women, had something to do with it.

Of course, the progression might not have been linear as words can have multiple meanings depending on context. But by the 20th century, slut had an exclusively sexual meaning.

Yet, even today the socio-economic aspect lingers. Elizabeth A. Armstrong‘s research at the University of Michigan found that slut shaming is often a competitive strategy to keep women with a lower socio-economic status away from high status men.

Man & Wife: Word Origin & Sexism

Why is a happy couple is declared man and wife? Why not man and woman, or wife and husband?

One view is that upon marriage a man retains his personhood while a woman becomes a possession. Similarly, the word mankind implies that only males are people, thus excluding half the population.

Language is fascinating. My interest in the history of the English language began in high school when my English teacher had us listen to a recording of Beowulf‘s prologue in the original Old English:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.

It’s hard to believe that this is actually English. But English’s Germanic origins were dramatically altered after the Norman French invasion of England in 1066.  Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, six centuries after Beowulf:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

English has always been a rapidly changing language, and this remains the case today. People sometimes ask when Americans lost their English accents. But reality is that Americans never had a modern British accent. English sounded very different in the early 1600s when the first settlers landed at Jamestown.

But back to the original question of sexism when declaring a couple man and wife.

Originally the phrase simply meant man and woman. The Old English word for an adult female, single or married, was wif (pronounced weef). An adult male was wer (pronounced ware). But wer eventually disappeared (the only form in Modern English is found in werewolf).

And there was a gender neutral word that meant person: mann. Being gender neutral, a female could also be called a mann. The Old English compound word wifmann meant female person, and eventually became woman. But the definition of wif, now wife, narrowed to exclude unmarried women. Wer fell out of use, however, and man became the masculine when referring to a specific person while retaining its gender neutral status when referring to people in general, such mankind.

By the late 20th century man and mankind no longer felt gender neutral and thus were seen as excluding women. And so a new gender neutral word was needed: humankind.

Because the word wife no longer means any woman, married or unmarried, many couples now choose to be pronounced husband and wife. The Old English word husbonda meant head of the household, and usually referred to a married man, though any male head of household could have claimed the name. But the term was always male.

Finally, the word female comes from the Norman French femelle. The Norman French word masle was Anglicized as male to more closely resemble the word female.

When Did Americans Lose Their English Accents?

American and British speech are so different that even professional actors struggle with sounding authentic.

So when did Americans lose their English accent?

Maybe Americans never had an English accent. At least not a modern British accent.

English is constantly changing. In the late Middle Ages Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour

And it sounds even stranger that it looks.

English started out as an Anglo-Frisian dialect of Old Western German, with some influences from the Saxon dialect and Old Norse (brought by the Vikings). The Norman French invasion of 1066 dramatically changed the language. English before that was unrecognizable:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

A sound clip of Beowulf shows how incomprehensible Old English is to a modern speaker.

Back to what English might have sounded like when the British first colonized America four hundred years ago.  Shakespeare wrote his plays a few decades before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and linguists today have reconstructed the sound of Shakespearean English using elocution guides from the early 1600s, analyzing spelling errors and rhyming schemes, etc.

Several things stand out while listening to a sound clip of Romeo and Juliet in the original pronunciation. One is that there’s no English dialect today that sounds like this, but it’s easy to see how this dialect could evolve over time into American English, Irish English, and Scottish English. Notably, the letter R was fully pronounced, unlike British and Australian English today.

However, London English of 1600, like today, was not representative of all British dialects. It’s notable that elocution guides from Shakespeare’s day say that one should pronounce R like a growl. Today’s soft R sound didn’t become widespread in England until around 1800. But the fact that elocution guides from 1600 had to point out the proper pronunciation of R means that some British dialects were non-rhotic early on.

In other words, America was settled when most English was still rhotic but with some exceptions. England eventually went full blown non-rhotic, but America did not. Today, American rhoticism is displacing New England’s historical non-rhoticism. Here in Maine, summer tourists are often disappointed that most of us sound more like Ben Affleck than John F. Kennedy. Australia, however, was settled after the American Revolution, which is why its dialects are non-rhotic like modern day England’s.

But it’s more than English sounding very different 400 years ago when America was settled. British dialects of centuries past were even more diverse than they are today. There are five foundational groups that created American English:

The South

Can you guess which dialect this biblical passage is written in?

De Song of Songs, dat is Solomons’s
Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth
for yer love is better dan wine…
My beloved spoke, an’ said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an’ come away…

Song of Solomon 1:1-2 & 2:10

That would be Sussex, England of centuries past. In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hacket Fischer notes that this dialect had disappeared in England by the mid-1800s, largely due to rising educational standards and British insistence on proper London English.

The first British colonists in America settled in Virginia, and from there they established other Southern colonies. These colonists hailed mostly from southwest England, and their speech patterns have lived on in Dixie while becoming extinct in Britain.

The elongated vowels, such as Aahm instead of I’m, was another dialect feature brought across the pond, as were certain words that today we think of as not only uniquely American but uniquely Southern: howdy, moonshine (whisky), laid off, mighty (instead of very), mess of greens, pekid (ill), book learning, jeans, traipse, unbeknownst, tote, disremember, woebegone, chomp, true grit, and belly ache.

New England

Fischer quotes a Pennsylvania woman’s surprise upon meeting a Southerner “who…never pronounces the R at all” (page 256). This speech habit also has long been associated with New England. East Anglia was the 17th century Puritan stronghold from which most New England colonists hailed. This might be the origin of New England’s “pahk the cah” accent.

While filming a movie in Maine in 2001 British actor Tom Wilkinson described the broad Maine accent as a “brother” to an English Norfolk accent, going so far as to say that a Mainer with a thick accent could walk into an East Anglia pub and convince folks that he’s a local (though that’s an exaggeration).

Middle America

Non-rhoticism may have started in East Anglia, reaching northern England last. But the Quakers left for Pennsylvania before non-rhoticism reached Yorkshire. The hard R sound of the American middle colonies was destined to become the dominant American dialect, perhaps because its geographical position allowed it to spread not just west, but northwest and southwest as well.

Fischer says that the dialects of northern England resulted from the commingling of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages. He calls it “muscular speech – bluff, literal, direct, vivid, forceful and plain-spoken” (page 470).

As various British dialects commingled in America, some English regionalisms disappeared while others survived. Americans discarded the northern England pronunciation “coom” for come, but retained northern Britain’s short A in dance.

Middle American words adopted by the rest of the country include bamboozle, abide, blather, boggle, by golly, chuck (throw), dumbfounded, flabbergasted, fuzz ball, elbow grease, flare up, good grief, guzzle, gumption, mad (angry), thingamajig, and many more.


Another key group are the Scots-Irish. They were the last foundational group of colonists. Recruited to act as a buffer between the polite English settlements of the coast and the Native Americans to the west who were angry about their land being taken, the militant Scots-Irish were cut out for the task.

For centuries the Scots tried to fight off their English conquerors (think Braveheart), and later when they settled in Northern Ireland this militancy was extended to religion as a clear marker between Protestant Ulstermen (Scots-Irish) and the Catholic Irish.

The Scots-Irish contributed much to American culture (praise God and pass the ammunition!), which extended west as whites fought Native Americans (how the West was won).

Coming late to the colonial party, they mostly adopted the dialects they found in America, so their Scots-Irish brogue didn’t survive. But they did leave a linguistic mark, such as yonder, thar (there), wrassle (wrestle), buck nekkid, critter, adding a- before a verb such as a-goin’, scrawny, honey as a term of endearment, and of course little shit referring to a small child.

Other Influential Groups

Other groups, though less influential, also played a foundational role in American English. For example, Native Americans gave us numerous place names, and words like raccoon for species native to North America.

Africans were involuntarily brought to America and learned English informally, giving rise to speech patterns such as verb omission (“where you at?”). African-Americans gave us juke (as in jukebox), okra, gumbo; revised forms of non-English European words such as banana and banjo; coined new words such as jive and boogie-woogie; and popularized other words such as okay and jitterbug. Use of language is also key. Rhyming to make a point and greater expressiveness than found in European culture greatly influenced American speech.

The Dutch, who settled New Amsterdam (later New York) before the British, gave us Yankees and cookies.

Later immigrant groups also contributed. The Irish taught Americans to say “I will” instead of “I shall.” I could go on and on about Spanish words that have entered American English. Finally, what would American English be without Yiddish borrowings such as schmuck and schlep?