iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast
My kids tell each other that something is random when it is unexpected, or they think it is weird or even when they think it is uncool—or even when it is cool.
To most of the rest of us something that is random has no predictable pattern. But 700 years ago when this word came to English from French it meant “to rush headlong” so that the lack of predictability was more a sense of being out of control due to speed.
The French were thought to have gotten the word from a Germanic word.
In French the word was randon with an N not an M and has since developed into randonnee which means a long outing or a hike. So in French there isn’t the sense so much of unpredictability, but wandering is still retained.
In English, before it arrived at its current meaning random evolved into “at full speed” and from there in a military sense to “at full range” for gunnery pieces, so that gunners would be given random tables that they would use to calculate at what angle they needed to set their guns to achieve the correct range.
This sense of random as “an angle” seeped into mining where it described the directions seams of ore took, and into printing where a frame set on an angle to make up the page out of pieces of type was called at random.
The sense we normally give to the word random has more to do with statistics. We’ve all heard of random numbers and random samples. Although the word has been kicking around in English for 700 years with these earlier meanings and more, this new statistical sense of the word didn’t emerge until 1898.
As far as the seemingly new slang use of the word goes, Urbandictionary says it is “the latest buzzword.”
But a word that has been around for 700 years is likely to hold a few surprises. Does this quote from the 1800s sound a bit like the latest buzzword?
“Men who were random grow steady when they have children to provide for.”
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.