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 president has fully embraced this arbitrary and senseless part of the plan without any intention of following through on the underlying rationale: to spread the burden of security so that no country is left holding the bag alone. Lindsay Koshgarian, Fortune, "Trump’s Complaints About NATO Defense Spending Don’t Add Up," 12 July 2018 WoodSpring called that decision arbitrary and unreasonable, and sued the city. Tom Daykin, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "WoodSpring Suites seeks license for first Milwaukee hotel as long battle enters new front," 29 June 2018 Characters in The Terror by and large don’t act in arbitrary or foolish ways just to move the plot along: Viewers spend enough time with them in smaller moments that their panicked actions tend to make sense. Asher Elbein, The Atlantic, "The Terror Is More Than a Chilling Monster Show," 1 May 2018 But Current Events, represented by attorney Joseph Stallone, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the permit denial, calling it an arbitrary and capricious decision that constituted an abuse of discretion by commissioners. Zeke Maccormack, San Antonio Express-News, "San Marcos Float Fest is a go," 3 Apr. 2018 But Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, said that following the proper rule-making procedures was important because doing so prevents arbitrary or capricious regulation. New York Times, "Borrowing G.O.P. Playbook, Democratic States Sue the Government and Rack Up Wins," 21 Mar. 2018 Branch claimed in a last-minute appeal that the Florida court's decisions on which inmates get new sentencing hearings and which do not is unfair and arbitrary. CBS News, "Man yelled "murderers" and thrashed on gurney during execution," 22 Feb. 2018 But perhaps worse is his bold—but more mainstream—demand that NATO countries meet an arbitrary military spending goal. Lindsay Koshgarian, Fortune, "Trump’s Complaints About NATO Defense Spending Don’t Add Up," 12 July 2018 Mr Haris briefly quit, saying that the NAB’s arbitrary rush to reach a judgment—handily, for Mr Sharif’s enemies, just before the election—was undermining the integrity of the proceedings. The Economist, "Pakistan’s former prime minister embraces jail to rally his party," 12 July 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

19 Sep 2018

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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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