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.”

“Huh?”

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.”

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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