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 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.
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Recent Examples on the Web Carney’s values are arbitrary and politically motivated, while Phelps’s are validated by both the historical evolution of innovation and statistical evidence. Philip Cross, National Review, "Value(s) without Value," 23 Apr. 2021 In 2017, Europe’s top human rights court said the fraud convictions of Navalny and his brother Oleg for allegedly embezzling funds from a state timber company nearly a decade ago were arbitrary and unreasonable. Vasiliy Kolotilov, Los Angeles Times, "In risky gambit, backers of ailing Russian opposition figure summon supporters to streets," 20 Apr. 2021 Other defendants will cite the SEC’s arbitrary and capricious nature. Roslyn Layton, Forbes, "In The Ripple Case, The SEC Is Now On Trial – And Knows It," 8 Apr. 2021 Prometheus Radio Project, the Third Circuit decision was itself arbitrary and capricious. The Editorial Board, WSJ, "A Unanimous Knockout on Media Rules," 1 Apr. 2021 Human rights groups say the Mozambican government's response to the insurgency has often been arbitrary and brutal. Tim Lister And Vasco Cotovio, CNN, "The brutal attacks in Mozambique are a 'game-changer' and imperil a whole country's financial future," 30 Mar. 2021 The judge is abusing the arbitrary and capricious standard. Noah Feldman Bloomberg Opinion (tns), Star Tribune, "Courts check Biden's power, same as Trump's," 28 Jan. 2021 Last week, the European Union, U.K., U.S. and Canada issued sanctions on Chinese officials for their arbitrary detention and abuse of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Los Angeles Times, "How Beijing silences Chinese voices against oppression of Uyghurs," 1 Apr. 2021 A month before Cheng was detained on Aug. 13, Australia warned its citizens of a risk of arbitrary detention in China. Rod Mcguirk, Star Tribune, "Chinese-Australian reporter accused of spreading secrets," 8 Feb. 2021

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

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Last Updated

4 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Arbitrary.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arbitrary. Accessed 8 May. 2021.

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

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