Random abuse (Mistake #89)

I’ll admit from the off that this is partly fuelled by an irrational pet hate that has been simmering for years – probably due to having a background in mathematics – but I can no longer keep a lid on my feelings for the abuse of the word ‘random’.

Random is a terrific word, with a useful meaning. It means ‘governed by chance’ or ‘without conscious decision’, for example. In mathematics, it can mean ‘without pattern’ or ‘unpredictable’, such as the digital expansion of pi – 3.14159265359 …..

When you choose your six lottery numbers – you are consciously choosing them, and this isn’t random; when the spinning wheel – which has no consciousness – ‘chooses’ a ball and spits it out, that is random. Actually, to be precise – it’s is randomly generated. A number of itself cannot be ‘random’.

Not long ago I saw an excellent interview piece by a student, in which she described how she’d thrown her interviewee a ‘random question’. The question – which turned out to be excellent – was formulated and chosen and specific, and therefore not random – arguably the opposite of random – and its qualities deserved a far better adjective. Unusual? Controversial? Probing? Out-of-the-blue? I forget which option I suggested to her, given the overall context, but there are certainly better ones available.

Another once described being ‘surrounded by random people’ in a crowd. This one’s trickier. He didn’t choose the people who encircled him, but it still doesn’t feel quite right to me, and I think ‘surrounded by members of the public’ is better. Someone who might accost you in the street may colloquially be described as ‘random’ (even in noun form – ‘a random’), but his behaviour in choosing you was not random. What’s wrong with ‘stranger’?

A ‘totally random’ event may be better described as ‘unexpected’. ‘Random act of violence’ might describe a crime where the perpetrator targeted a victim unknown to him, who perhaps was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, but was it or the victim random – or might ‘arbitrary’ be better? Victims are still ‘chosen’ – albeit often on a whim – and people commit violence through choice.

‘On a whim’, incidentally, may also work. Alternatively, did you really ‘randomly’ go on holiday within hours of deciding to do so – or did you ‘spontaneously’ decide?

I expect colloquial conversational usage of the word random will eventually progress towards more formal acceptance. I think we’re going that way with ‘literally’ (to mean its opposite, ‘metaphorically’), but until we get there, I reckon when you’re writing for publication it’s worth seeking out a more precise word to denote the sense you’re trying to convey – but feel free to tell me I’m just a randomly grumpy old bloke with an irrational grudge against a word and its (ab)users ….

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