arbitrary

adjective
ar·​bi·​trary | \ ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē , -ˌtre-rē\

Definition of arbitrary

1a : existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance or as a capricious and unreasonable act of will an arbitrary choice When a task is not seen in a meaningful context it is experienced as being arbitrary.— Nehemiah Jordan
b : based on or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something an arbitrary standard take any arbitrary positive number
2a : not restrained or limited in the exercise of power : ruling by absolute authority an arbitrary government
b : marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power protection from arbitrary arrest and detention
3 law : depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law The manner of punishment is arbitrary.

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Other Words from arbitrary

arbitrarily \ ˌär-​bə-​ˈtrer-​ə-​lē , -​ˈtre-​rə-​ \ adverb
arbitrariness \ ˈär-​bə-​ˌtrer-​ē-​nəs , -​ˌtre-​rē-​ \ noun

Did You Know?

Arbitrary is derived from the same source as "arbiter." The Latin word arbiter means "judge," and English adopted it, via Anglo-French, with the meaning "one who judges a dispute"; it can now also be used for anyone whose judgment is respected. "Arbitrary" traces back to the Latin adjective arbitrarius ("done by way of legal arbitration"), which itself comes from "arbiter." In English "arbitrary" first meant "depending upon choice or discretion" and was specifically used to indicate the sort of decision (as for punishment) left up to the expert determination of a judge rather than defined by law. Today, it can also be used for anything determined by or as if by a personal choice or whim.

Examples of arbitrary in a Sentence

U.S. News was revealed to have considered assigning in its next rankings an arbitrary SAT score to Sarah Lawrence College because the school no longer collects applicants' scores. — Julie Rawe, Time, 2 Apr. 2007 Darwin's emphasis on how populations gradually change gave the notion of species a more arbitrary quality: Species had whatever boundaries taxonomists chose. The idea of a species as a population of individuals that breed mostly with each other comes from 20th-century theorists. — S. Milius, Science News, 25 Mar. 2006 The Marriage Act certainly employed arbitrary and draconian means. It forced all couples to marry between 8 am and 12 noon, according to the rites of the established Church of England, in one of their respective local parish churches. — David Johnson, History Today, November 2003 Two days after President Lincoln issued the first version of his Emancipation Proclamation, he suspended the right of habeas corpus for anyone accused of resisting the draft or discouraging enlistment. Hundreds of civilians were arrested, some for good reasons, some for entirely arbitrary and personal ones. — Michael Lesy, Double Take, Spring 2001 An arbitrary number has been assigned to each district. I don't know why I chose that one; it was a completely arbitrary decision. Although arbitrary arrests are illegal, they continue to occur in many parts of the country.
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Recent Examples on the Web

The solution is simple: Military spending should be determined not by arbitrary spending rules, but by security needs. Lindsay Koshgarian, Fortune, "Trump’s Complaints About NATO Defense Spending Don’t Add Up," 12 July 2018 The conservative members of the Supreme Court basically said that states can take away a citizen’s fundamental right to participate in democracy simply by creating arbitrary rules, Bloomberg reports. Michael Harriot, The Root, "Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Voter Suppression ... Again," 11 June 2018 In her ruling, Beeler said the decision to revoke those approvals was arbitrary and capricious and required more analysis and explanation. Sudhin Thanawala, The Seattle Times, "US judge tosses bulk of suit against Trump immigration move," 10 Dec. 2018 Here's what else gives me pause: The meal plan is arbitrary: Just look at the portion sizes. Jaclyn London, Ms, Rd, Cdn, Good Housekeeping, "Everything You Need to Know About the Military Diet, According to a Nutritionist," 11 Dec. 2018 There’s no reason to let an arbitrary deadline put a halt to ongoing negotiations. Heather Gillers, WSJ, "Panel Won’t Meet Deadline on Fix for Multiemployer Pension Plans," 29 Nov. 2018 Riley letter is getting picked up on social media, with many responders pointing out that gendered shoe sizing is arbitrary. Mekita Rivas, Teen Vogue, "This 9-Year-Old Basketball Player Is Asking Steph Curry Why His Sneakers Are Only Made for Boys," 27 Nov. 2018 Hoffman, who works for the University of Louisville, said the bill's 11-week provision is an arbitrary deadline that doesn't even mark the start of the second trimester. Morgan Watkins, The Courier-Journal, "Kentucky lawmakers want to ban a common type of abortion after 11 weeks," 7 Mar. 2018 The former New York mayor is on an exhausting schedule of nonstop appearances, making up arbitrary deadlines and hamstringing his client, and that much work calls for some self-care. Luke Darby, GQ, "Rudy Giuliani Got Booed at Yankee Stadium on His Birthday," 29 May 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'arbitrary.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of arbitrary

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3

History and Etymology for arbitrary

Middle English, "depending on individual discretion," borrowed from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French arbitraire, arbitrarie "relating to arbitration," borrowed from Latin arbitrārius "relating to or depending on the discretion of an arbiter," from arbitr-, arbiter arbiter + -ārius -ary entry 2

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Last Updated

24 Jan 2019

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Time Traveler for arbitrary

The first known use of arbitrary was in the 15th century

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More Definitions for arbitrary

arbitrary

adjective

English Language Learners Definition of arbitrary

: not planned or chosen for a particular reason : not based on reason or evidence
: done without concern for what is fair or right

arbitrary

adjective
ar·​bi·​trary | \ ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē \

Kids Definition of arbitrary

1 : made, chosen, or acting without thought of what is fair or right arbitrary decisions an arbitrary ruler
2 : seeming to have been made or chosen by chance We were given an arbitrary list of books to choose from.

Other Words from arbitrary

arbitrarily \ ˌär-​bə-​ˈtrer-​ə-​lē \ adverb
arbitrariness \ ˈär-​bə-​ˌtrer-​ē-​nəs \ noun

arbitrary

adjective
ar·​bi·​trary | \ ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē \

Legal Definition of arbitrary

1 : depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by standards, rules, or law the manner of punishment is arbitrary
2a : not restrained or limited in the exercise of power an arbitrary government
b : marked by or resulting from the unrestrained exercise of power protection from arbitrary arrest and detention
3a : based on preference, bias, prejudice, or convenience rather than on reason or fact an arbitrary standard different provisions for the married and the unmarried were irrational and arbitrary— K. A. Cohen
b : existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance or as an unreasonable act of individual will without regard for facts or applicable law often used in the phrase arbitrary and capricious an agency finding or conclusion of lack of evidence would be arbitrary and capricious if the record afforded no substantial basis for such a findingIrvin v. Hobby, 131 F. Supp. 851 (1955)

Note: Under section 706 of the Administrative Procedure Act, a court shall set aside an agency's action, findings, or conclusions determined upon review to be arbitrary.

Other Words from arbitrary

arbitrarily \ ˌär-​bə-​ˈtrer-​ə-​lē \ adverb
arbitrariness \ ˈär-​bə-​ˌtrer-​ē-​nəs \ noun

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to deny responsibility for

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