What is the difference between the words random want and whim?

The definition of whim can be easily found in the dictionary:

a sudden wish to do or have something, especially when it is something unusual or unnecessary

Random want is not on the dictionary. It turns out to be just two words combined together. But it seems to me to have nearly the same meaning as whim.

I came across this word chunk in the phrase made up by a native American:

They thought the problem to be settled was how on earth to get posters to understand that CONTEXT is not just some random WANT on the part of those who would like to answer, but an ABSOLUTE REQUIREMENT.

But later in the discussion the native speaker writes:

random want fits better than whim

, which suggest that there is some difference for him between the words whim and random want.

So, what is the difference?

  • Seems to me that you've answered your own question! It all boils down to the difference between what you wish for and what you want.
    – Ambar
    Nov 30, 2011 at 11:43
  • @Ambar From the dictionary: wish= a desire or a feeling that you want to do sth or have sth; want = something that you need or want. But random want makes want more close to whim, doesn't it?
    – ovgolovin
    Nov 30, 2011 at 11:51
  • Maybe it's a matter of dialectal differences, but it seems rather odd for OP's "native American" to have used the word want rather than wish or desire. But in any case, arbitrary request seems far better when contrasting with absolute requirement. Dec 1, 2011 at 0:08
  • 1 It may be worth bearing in mind that the noun "want" is also something that one lacks "For the want of a nail the shoe was lost." 2 Random want is not in the dictionary. It turns out to be just two words combined - - so is random whim...
    – Greybeard
    Aug 20, 2021 at 10:02

4 Answers 4


I think the difference here boils down to the differences between these words:

  • need (require)
  • want (desire but do not need)
  • whim (sudden or random desire)

The original quote is saying that context is a need, not just a want. When discussing requirements it is normal to prioritize according to needs and wants. That is the distinction that the author is making here.

A whim, on the other hand, is not as strong a desire as a want, and using the word "whim" softens the nature of the desire for context. Thus, the author wanted to keep the word "want" for its specific purpose in this context.

  • Why want is desire but no need? The dictionary gives the following definition of want: something that you need or want.
    – ovgolovin
    Nov 30, 2011 at 14:37
  • @ovgolovin: When comparing desires, as the quote is doing, a requirement is a NEED (it must be fulfilled) and something which is desired but not strictly needed is a WANT. In the broader sense, you usually WANT what you NEED, but when making the comparison, the terminology is more precise. Nov 30, 2011 at 18:56
  • That's Mr. Economics talking, not Mr. Shiny ;)
    – Ambar
    Dec 2, 2011 at 10:57

It's not so much that the overall meaning is different.

You could say that a random want is a whim if you wanted.

The problem with the context you give is that the writer has emphasised the wrong word. The writer seems to want to make it clear that the the need for context is not random and so should have emphasised that word, rather than want. They do want context, and presumably for very good reasons. So the want is not random.

Put in this light, I think it is better to use the phrase random want over whim because it has hard sounds in it, which allows the writer to express their frustration better.

Whim is a soft word that conjures up ideas of whimsy and so would not fit in well with the anger the writer is trying to diffuse.

  • 2
    +1. I think an additional difference between a random want and a whim is permanence. To me, it seems that a whim is a desire that you're quite likely not to have tomorrow, while a random want is something that you desire for no particularly good reason, but which you will quite possibly still want tomorrow. Nov 30, 2011 at 13:39
  • Thanks! It explains why the author preferred random want.
    – ovgolovin
    Nov 30, 2011 at 13:40

Jasper Loy's answer gave me some ideas. I want to lay out some elaboration in this answer.

random want is what happens by chance, not according to the plan.

There are several explanation for whim in different dictionaries:

OALD: a sudden wish to do or have something, especially when it is something unusual or unnecessary

Cambridge: a sudden wish or idea, especially one that cannot be reasonably explained

Macmillan: a sudden feeling that you must have or must do something. This word often suggests that what someone wants is not important.

So, whim carries the idea suddenness, unusualness, being unnecessary, without reasonable explanation and usually not being important.

Taking all this into account, it seems to me that whim can't be according to the plan (I don't see how something sudden, unnecessary and not important can be on the plan).

This means that whim is random want with some additional features of being sudden and unnecessary. Whereas random want per se doesn't have the idea of being unnecessary (still random, it might be useful), or sudden, or unimportant (it may turnt out to be important when this want appears).


In the example you provide the author is using want in the nounified jargon-based sense of technical requirements. A requirement for a system being designed that is nice to have, but is not essential, would be a WANT. Whereas a NEED or a MUST HAVE needs to be implemented for the system to be successful.

Whim is a good synonym for what is being described by the author, but it lacks the semantics of technical requirements.

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