Word of the week: Random

November 5, 2020 Tim Glynne-Jones

To choose this week’s word I took any old book from my bookshelf, stuck in a pin and it landed on the word ‘random’. Imagine the chances of that!

It was a book I turn to a lot when I’m writing – a dog-eared biography of the French philosophical author Albert Camus, which just happens to be the perfect thickness to fit under the leg of the table and stop it wobbling. Now that’s what I call existentialism! The quote into which I stuck my pin was this:

“It is necessary to fall in love… if only to provide an alibi for all the random despair you are going to feel anyway.”

It’s all good, upbeat stuff with Camus. But compare that quote to this one from Thomas Moore, the Lord High Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, who refused to acknowledge Henry as the Church of England’s Supreme Head and consequently lost his own. Prior to his beheading (always the best time to get your thoughts down), Moore wrote:

“This wretched brain gave way, and I became a wreck at random driven, without one glimpse of reason or heaven.”

His use of the word ‘random’ gives a hint of its original meaning, i.e. ‘at great speed’, from the old French ‘randir’ – ‘to run fast’. This came to be associated with impetuosity, lack of thought and care – imagine a horse and carriage being driven too fast; or Wayne Rooney lunging into a tackle in the 89th minute when England are a goal down and he’s missed a couple of sitters.

You get the picture.

In fairness to Wayne, the sense that the world is spinning too fast and you’re always scrabbling for control is one that afflicts 99% of people on the planet*, and for which there are only two known cures: listen to Test Match Special or get a cat.

Or both.

Anyway, from this sense of headlong haphazardness evolved the modern sense of the word ‘random’ – ‘without any specific aim or purpose’. In stark contrast to Moore’s ‘random’, it’s become trendy to apply the word to those eccentric people who move slowly through the world, occasionally saying things that make everyone else stop in their tracks, scratch their head and feel slightly uneasy. The 1%. In the past they would have been called philosophers. Today, they’re just ‘random’.

*Statistic made up at random but probably true.

You’ve read the blog, now buy the book. Word of the Week: Volume One (a collection of 52 words) is available in paperback from word-of-the-week.com