This week’s word: “random”

David Parry and I looking rather random

It’s about time this blog had a “random” post.

OK, yes, that is a rather lame lead-in to this week’s word, which also happens to be random, as it were, which can be found, as usual, on The Cambridge’s Student‘s site, in its usual corner on its usual page, but also below:

“As one might imagine, the meanings of words tend to change, not always randomly, but sometimes seemingly so. I must thank my decidedly non-random friend Neil Simpson for suggesting that we investigate “random.”

Something or someone that acts in a random fashion, as we know it today, does so rather chaotically, without purpose or guidance. This contemporary meaning has its roots in a much less random meaning of the word, stemming directly from its origins in clashing knights on war-horses.

That is right: chivalry, and all that jazz.

The original Anglo-Norman and Old French word, “randoun,” dating from around the 12th century, and then the later Middle French word, “randon,” refers to “speed” or “haste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED), and also to “impetuousness” or “violence,” from “randir,” meaning “to run fast,” or “gallop.” It might be related to the Germanic word “rand” (as in the Old Saxon, or Middle Low German) meaning “shield,” or, alternatively, “border” or “edge,” and thus “shield-rim” or “shield-boss” (the knobby thing in the middle of round shields, and handy for hitting).

As such, and as noted by the OED, the word can be found in as old a text as “Beowulf” (which itself dates to between the seventh and tenth centuries) with this rather undecipherable line, “He under rande gecranc.” An Old English translation of Exodus from the 10th century describes the parting waves of the Red Sea as the “randgebeorh,” or “shield-wall.”

We also find the Middle-French expression, de randon or “at speed,” and the Anglo-Norman phrase, a grant randun or “in great haste.” To strike “with great random” was to do so with great force while riding or running, as in the medieval joust, though “at the random” probably refers to the wilder jousting that did not include such niceties as barriers. Additionally, in falconry, “flying at speed” was said to be “at random.” These now obsolete meanings, as the OED tells us, referring to a “an impetuous rush” or a “rapid, headlong course” were its predominate senses until the 17th century.

By the end of the 1500s, the meaning behind the phrase began to change, and meant something less directed, and more out-of-control, perhaps stemming from the idea that running at a full gallop was not always the picture of serenity and restraint. Thus we have the Bard using this line in his Venus and Adonis (c. 1592), “But hatefully at random dost thou hit.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744) later used the word in his Dunciad, which attacked hack writers, with the line in question being, “She shows … How random thoughts now meaning chance to find.”

Finally, in a bit of nostalgia, Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens; 1835-1910), used the word in 1889, in its older sense, in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with the line, “Two knights came together with great random.”

Well, I hope that was not too terribly random, as it were. If you have any (random) word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s