arbitrary

adjective
ar·​bi·​trary | \ ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē How to pronounce arbitrary (audio) , -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.

Keep scrolling for more

Other Words from arbitrary

arbitrarily \ ˌär-​bə-​ˈtrer-​ə-​lē How to pronounce arbitrary (audio) , -​ˈtre-​rə-​ \ adverb
arbitrariness \ ˈär-​bə-​ˌtrer-​ē-​nəs How to pronounce arbitrary (audio) , -​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.
See More
Recent Examples on the Web Last week, seven civil society organizations said in a statement that terrorism charges in Turkey were arbitrary, adding that the law violates the presumption of innocence and punishes those whose trials are not finalized. Washington Post, "World Digest: Dec. 27, 2020," 28 Dec. 2020 Many business owners are risking their livelihoods by complying with these arbitrary restrictions. Karol Markowicz, Washington Examiner, "Elite hypocrisy is killing small businesses," 17 Dec. 2020 At school the Monday after Thanksgiving, children were asked whether their parents had broken the arbitrary, intrusive, and unnecessary one-household rule. Brian T. Allen, National Review, "Lockout-Loving Museums Spiral Downward," 5 Dec. 2020 But too often the rules are unstated, arbitrary, or unfair. Fortune, "Better conversations: The 7 essential elements of meaningful communication," 24 Nov. 2020 High housing costs limit the prosperity-producing power of metropolitan areas, often due to arbitrary restrictions on building. Tim Fernholz, Quartz, "The case for a billion Americans," 19 Sep. 2020 The rights group released a report alleging violations of judicial procedures, including baseless charges and arbitrary use of pretrial detention, after interim President Jeanine Áñez took power following Morales's ouster in November 2019. Carlos Valdez, Star Tribune, "HRW: Bolivia case against Morales is politically motivated," 11 Sep. 2020 Being born with a high I.Q. is just as arbitrary, in a moral sense, as being born to the Manor. Win Mccormack, The New Republic, "Meritocracy on Trial," 23 Dec. 2020 In Stockton, in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley, some small-business owners are demanding a reprieve from closures, arguing that this third round is arbitrary and unfair. Los Angeles Times, "‘I’ve seen people die.’ COVID-19 slams Central Valley hospitals, as many resist lockdowns," 13 Dec. 2020

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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about arbitrary

Time Traveler for arbitrary

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Listen to Our Podcast about arbitrary

Statistics for arbitrary

Last Updated

16 Jan 2021

Cite this Entry

“Arbitrary.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arbitrary. Accessed 26 Jan. 2021.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for arbitrary

arbitrary

adjective
How to pronounce arbitrary (audio)

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 How to pronounce arbitrary (audio) \

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 How to pronounce arbitrary (audio) \

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 How to pronounce arbitrary (audio) \ adverb
arbitrariness \ ˈär-​bə-​ˌtrer-​ē-​nəs How to pronounce arbitrary (audio) \ noun

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on arbitrary

What made you want to look up arbitrary? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

WORD OF THE DAY

Test Your Vocabulary

Slippery Words Quiz—Changing with the Times

  • ducreux self portrait yawning
  • What is an earlier meaning of nice?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

TAKE THE QUIZ
 AlphaBear 2

Spell words. Make bears.

TAKE THE QUIZ
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!