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 As constructed, though, the various episodes have an arbitrary, willy-nilly feel to them, lurching from one deadly scenario to the next, instead of following a clear path. Brian Lowry, CNN, "'The Rhythm Section' casts Blake Lively in a thriller that can't get its act together," 30 Jan. 2020 But the government’s draft on the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) funds cannot be arbitrary, at least for four more financial years. Cp Chandrasekhar, Quartz India, "India’s central bank may not have any golden eggs for the Modi government this budget," 30 Jan. 2020 His arbitrary, callous, and, in at least one case, seemingly corrupt decision to pardon many violent felons on his way out of office was an abuse of his power. Ben Tobin, The Courier-Journal, "'Miscarriage of justice' to 'mercifulness': What people have said about the Bevin pardons," 18 Dec. 2019 To be able to keep freelancing, writers were capped at 35 submissions a year — a small and seemingly arbitrary number. Eli Rosenberg, Washington Post, "Gig economy bills move forward in other blue states, after California clears the way," 17 Jan. 2020 Of course, your choice doesn’t have to be so arbitrary. Alisha Mcdarris, Popular Science, "Show your local park some love by planning a volunteer day," 13 Jan. 2020 This dearth of representation means music streaming platforms have a pretty arbitrary degree of coverage. Mario J. Lucero, Quartz, "Music streaming services mishandle our data—and our culture is paying for it," 3 Jan. 2020 The playoff is more arbitrary invitational than actual tournament, creating the season-long need to tantalize 13 judges by humiliating opponents and the inevitable related lapses in logic. Harvey Araton, New York Times, "End of the Year Means Another Contrived College Football Playoff," 25 Dec. 2019 Perez’s solution was to create debate rules so arbitrary that nobody could blame him for anything. Walter Shapiro, The New Republic, "Tom Perez’s Preposterous Debate Rules," 19 Dec. 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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Time Traveler for arbitrary

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

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Last Updated

7 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Arbitrary.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arbitrary. Accessed 17 Feb. 2020.

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

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