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The rise of random

In the 1990s teenagers called everything and everyone sad – but in the early 2000s this favourite word of disapproval was overtaken by random. In this second decade of the twenty-first century, even those well out of their teens can be heard using it. According to the OED, the ‘without method or conscious decision’ sense of the adjective random dates back to the seventeenth century, while the extended informal meaning (‘odd, unusual, or unexpected’) arose in the 1970s in US computing circles.

However, the newer sense of the word didn’t take off in British English until the twenty-first century. When it did, as with sad, the change in meaning was quite small, with the biggest difference being the contexts and the ways in which the word is used today. In the twenty-first century, random can be used in rather a disparaging way (often with the adverbs ‘so’ or ‘totally’), as in these examples from the Oxford English Corpus:

Mum, you are so random!
Basically I got a random phone call from him.
Don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t totally random.

However, it is also often used in a positive sense – or at least with the implication that the subject, though undeniably odd, is also amusing and entertaining, as in these examples:

Lol, that was so random. Love it!
Today is dedicated to random cool people.
The class was hard but he was so random that it was always fun.

When it gained its new meaning as an adjective, random also became a noun, with the informal meaning being used to refer to people who were considered odd, or who were unexpected within a particular context, as these recent examples from the OED show:

… having amazing conversations with total randoms …
What if there are loads of randoms just standing there watching?

As with geek, viral, fail, and meme, the Internet, with its social networks, chat rooms, forums, and random UGC, has no doubt helped the spread of random’s new meaning: it seems made for commenting on the many unexpected delights of cyberspace …

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