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.

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Other Words from arbitrary

arbitrarily \ ˌär-​bə-​ˈtrer-​ə-​lē How to pronounce arbitrarily (audio) , -​ˈtre-​rə-​ \ adverb
arbitrariness \ ˈär-​bə-​ˌtrer-​ē-​nəs How to pronounce arbitrariness (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.
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Recent Examples on the Web

But people living in shelters say the overhaul should start with the transfers themselves, which sometimes feel arbitrary, retaliatory or carried out with indifference. New York Times, "Shuffled Among Homeless Shelters, and Not Told Why," 13 June 2019 As a former pageant queen who was judged on her ability to fit someone else's arbitrary standards, that last request seems to hit harder than any other one. Ariana Romero, refinery29.com, "Tyler Cameron Just Became The Bachelorette’s Front-Runner — Here's How," 6 June 2019 My obsession with wealthy-looking hair, albeit incited by a childhood chip on my shoulder, has taught me important lessons about wealth, privilege, and arbitrary beauty standards. Veronica Walsingham, SELF, "Growing Up With Less Money Than My Friends Made Me Obsessed With Having Wealthy-Looking Hair," 15 Nov. 2018 And what is pretty anyway but an arbitrary, outmoded, subjective standard used to make women feel bad? Gary Thompson, Philly.com, "Amy Schumer's 'I Feel Pretty': Not oh so witty or wise," 18 Apr. 2018 One is that $1 billion is a nice, round number but a rather arbitrary standard. Callum Borchers, Washington Post, "The Treasury Department copied from Forbes magazine, which Trump once said 'doesn’t know what they’re talking about'," 30 Jan. 2018 Some candidates are arguing that the polling and fundraising thresholds are arbitrary, and that there was very little transparency in how the DNC came to decide these criteria. Grace Segers, CBS News, "DNC chair defends criteria for Democratic debates," 7 June 2019 The deadlines may seem arbitrary, but federal judges established them to prevent indefinite jail stays for mentally ill defendants. oregonlive.com, "Oregon lawmakers announce reform plan, citing ‘unacceptable’ situation at state mental hospital," 5 June 2019 The first 100 days is often a milestone for a new Congress — an automatic, if arbitrary, moment to assess the workings of the legislative branch. Padmananda Rama, The Seattle Times, "House Democrats cheer wins of 1st 100 days, ponder stumbles," 12 Apr. 2019

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

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

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