Etymology of the Day: random

The survey collected a random sample. The clerk organized the random boxes in the storeroom. She got a weird text message from this random stranger. Can I ask you a random question? He’s so random, like, sometimes he’ll chew gum while drinking coffee. Random kinda seems like a random word, doesn’t it? Where does it come from?

random.jpg
Squirrel! Etymologically, this dog is running at random. (Pixabay)

Random

First attested in the early 1300s, random originally referred to “great speed” or “force,” used especially in the phrases to run at random or with great random. Random’s velocity and violence conveyed a sense of impetuousness and rashness. And so by the 1540s, the expression at random rushed towards “without aim or purpose,” a short step from the modern adjective, which settled in by the 1650s. 

Random didn’t come into English at random. It derives from the Old French randon, a similar noun denoting “speed, haste, violence, impetuousness,” probably formed from the verb randir, “to run fast, gallop.” The deeper origins of randir aren’t certain, but scholars conjecture the Frankish *rant, “a running.” (Frankish was a West Germanic language spoken by the Franks, a Germanic tribe in late antiquity whose name lives on in France and the adjective frank.) This *rant, and thus random, may be related to the same Germanic root that gives us run.

The statistical random emerges by the 1880s, but the word wasn’t done running. Computing, campus, and teen slang in the 1960–80s helped fashion a random, a “stranger” or “outsider,” sometimes shortened to rando, as well as the informal, often pejorative use of random for “odd, peculiar, unexpected, unfamiliar,” e.g., Don’t go home with that random guy. Definitely run–at the etymological random–from him.

m ∫ r ∫

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