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’.

Pi on the left, a question mark on the right
Random … and not 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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