Creeper! Rando! Sketchball!

When Liana Roux, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was reading a Facebook event page for her friend’s birthday party recently, she noticed a terse proviso at the end of the announcement: “No randos.” The friend wanted only people she knew to come to her party and thus sought to bar any random strangers, or randos, in collegiate parlance.

Roux is keeping track of words like rando for an assignment in a class she is taking on the grammar of current English, taught by Connie C. Eble, the resident linguist in U.N.C.’s English department. Since 1972, Eble has asked her students to compile lists of slang that they encounter in their everyday interactions, and this semester, rando is going on Roux’s list.

Rando is one of a surprisingly large number of words that U.N.C. students use to refer to unfamiliar, suspicious or anxiety-producing outsiders. Skimming the lists that Eble has collected from recent classes, I kept spotting a familiar pattern: along with rando, there are nouns like creeper, sketcher and sketchball and adjectives like dubious, grimy, sketchy, sketch and skeazy. Sketchy and sketch have, in fact, been among the most frequently attested words culled from Eble’s students for the past several semesters.

These treacherous terms have been percolating for years on many American campuses. A list of slang compiled from students at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, published in the journal American Speech in 1975, included sketch as an adjective meaning “dangerous, risky” (“I think we’re in a sketch situation”). By 1996, one of Eble’s U.N.C. students offered sketch as a noun meaning “someone who is hard to figure out.” The variations sketchball, sketcher and sketchmaster followed thereafter, all sharing an air of suspicion and possible danger or at least discomfort.

The creep family is much older, originally describing people you can’t trust because they’re always “creeping around.” In early-20th-century America, a creep or creeper could refer to a sneaky thief, a cheating lover or a despicable person more generally. In later years, the annoying or shady creep begat creepo, creepazoid and creepshow. (And just as you can be creeped out by a creepy person, you can be sketched out by a sketchy person.)

We can thank the fine minds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for moving random into the realm of the weird. As early as 1971, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, M.I.T.’s student paper, The Tech, was using random as an adjective meaning “peculiar, strange” or as a noun to disparage people outside a community, particularly the community of computer hackers. (The 1991 New Hacker’s Dictionary provides the example “The audience was full of randoms asking bogus questions.”) Eventually it could refer to unfamiliar faces in any social situation, like a party or a bar, with rando as a slangy 21st-century shortening.

Even if these terms describing creepy outsiders aren’t necessarily novel, the question remains: Why do they occur in such profusion on the U.N.C. slang lists? Eble points out that the words are typically used by women, who currently make up nearly 60 percent of U.N.C.’s student population. Compared with past generations, Eble said, “female students are putting themselves into more dangerous situations than they did in my day,” especially when it comes to dating and partying. Terms like creeper, rando and sketchball come in handy as women deal with men who may try to give them unwanted attention.

In interviews I conducted with Eble’s students, one recurring theme that emerged was the impact of technology and social media on the need to patrol social boundaries. “With Facebook and texting,” Natasha Duarte said, “it’s easier to contact someone you’re interested in, even if you only met them once and don’t really know them. To the person receiving them, these texts and Facebook friend requests or wall posts can seem premature and unwarranted, or sketchy.”

Facebook in particular lends itself to “stalkerish” behavior, Christina Clark explained, and indeed the compound verb Facebook stalk (meaning “excessively or surreptitiously peruse another’s Facebook profile”) shows up in the latest slang lists. “People put things on Facebook a lot of the time to show off pictures of themselves and to meet new people, but some of these new people are undesirables,” Clark said. “Unfortunately, it can be hard to filter these people out without feeling unkind, so this information is available to them, and often it is alarming if they seem to be looking through pictures or constantly trying to find out what you’re up to. These people then become stalkers or ‘creepers.’ ”

Lilly Kantarakias said she believes that the shift to technologically mediated exchanges among students is leading to a “loss of intimacy” and that this failure to engage in human contact is responsible for the rise in all of the “sketchy” talk. “People have lost both their sense of communication and social-interaction skills,” Kantarakias said. “We know only how to judge people off of a Facebook page or we easily misinterpret texts or e-mails. You can see it in the way people walk around campus, texting on their cells, being completely oblivious to the hundreds of people surrounding them. We’ve become lazy with our speech and our social profiling of fellow human beings.”

Roux observed that “as college students, we navigate through an enormous social landscape every day.” The slang words for suspicious outsiders “create a distance between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between our clique and the creepers.” These “terms of exclusion,” as Roux sees them, don’t just separate an in-group of students from potentially dangerous people but also from “people we just dislike or people who are perceived as different or weird.” And that type of behavior, even if it is complicated these days by new technology, new social pressures and new slang expressions, is surely as old as the hills.

Ben Zimmer, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/magazine/31FOB-onlanguage-t.html