The Meaning of Arbitrary: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of arbitrary? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word arbitrary, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What does the word arbitrary mean?

According to Collins English Dictionary and the American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary  of the English Language, the word arbitrary is an adjective that means done without preference or on impulse and not out of necessity. Someone might make an arbitrary judgment, arbitrary rulings or an arbitrary decision at individual discretion or individual judgment for no reason. This word often has a negative connotation, and references those who create a stature based on their individual judgment or unlimited power. In maths, this arithmetical value is known as an arbitrary constant. Many things seem arbitrary, like the legal age of adulthood, the trust of a witness or overseer, the daily menus of restaurants, a fee for different charges, and other national standard limits and regulations. Sometimes people perform the relative application of something arbitrary to show superiority or that they are part of the dominant classes, such as an arbiter’s decision to repossess an airstream trailer with no real reason or reasonable alternatives. Even Benjamin Franklin’s designation of “positive” and “negative” to the electron’s different charges was arbitrary. As a matter of fact, electrons flow in the opposite direction to what we know as conventional current.

You can add the suffixes er, ness, tion and ilyin addition to ary to form the related words arbiter (n.) such as an independent arbiter, arbitrariness (n.) arbitration (n.) and arbitrarily (adv., ə-lē) Arbitrary is four syllables – ar-bi-trar-y, and the pronunciation of arbitrary is ˈɑːbɪtrərɪ.

Many different languages also contain words that mean arbitrary. Check out this list of translations of arbitrary from Word Sense.

  •  Bulgarian: произволен‎, своеволен‎
  •  Polish: arbitralny‎ (masc.)
  •  Greek: αυθαίρετος‎
  •  Portuguese: arbitrário‎ (masc.), arbitrária‎ (fem.)
  •  Nynorsk: vilkårleg‎
  •  Ido: arbitriala‎
  •  Romanian: arbitrar‎
  •  Georgian: დაუსაბუთებელი‎
  •  Russian: произво́льный‎
  •  French: arbitraire‎
  •  Bokmål: vilkårlig‎
  •  Belarusian: адво́льны‎ (masc.)
  •  Swedish: godtycklig‎
  •  Danish: arbitrær‎
  •  Latin: arbitrarius‎
  •  Irish: ar togradh‎, aondeonach‎
  •  Japanese: 恣意‎
  •  Dutch: willekeurig‎
  •  Galician: arbitrario‎
  •  Spanish: arbitrario‎
  •  Catalan: arbitrari‎
  •  Asturian: arbitrariu‎
  •  Czech: libovolný‎ (masc.)
  •  Turkish: keyfî‎, isteğe bağlı‎, ihtiyarî‎
  •  Italian: arbitrario‎ (masc.), arbitraria‎ (fem.)
  •  German: willkürlich‎, nach Ermessen‎, in freiem Ermessen‎, frei‎, Ermessens-‎
  •  Tagalog: alitakdain‎

What are synonyms and antonyms of the word arbitrary?

There are numerous different words in the English language that have the same meaning as the word arbitrary. These are called synonyms. Synonyms can be used in place of a certain word, and are useful to know because they can help expand your vocabulary and help you avoid repeating yourself. This list of synonyms of arbitrary is provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  unreasoned
  •  subjective
  •  peremptory
  •  erratic
  •  undemocratic
  •  chance
  •  highhanded
  •  hit-or-miss
  •  fanciful
  •  imperious
  •  discretional
  •  arbitrarily
  •  magistral
  •  irrational
  •  unrestrained
  •  dogmatic
  •  totalitarian
  •  humorsome
  •  wild
  •  wayward
  •  despotic
  •  tyrannical
  •  discretionary
  •  oppressive
  •  authoritarian
  •  absolute
  •  absolutist
  •  overbearing
  •  casual
  •  elective
  •  autocratic
  •  autarchic
  •  freakish
  •  high-handed
  •  caprice
  •  wanton
  •  optional
  •  domineering
  •  unlimited
  •  arrogant
  •  tyrannous
  •  motiveless
  •  magisterial
  •  bossy
  •  unpredictable
  •  haphazard
  •  dictatorial
  •  whimsical
  •  indiscriminate
  •  capricious
  •  random

There are also many different words that mean the opposite of the word arbitrary. These are called antonyms, which are another great way to expand your vocabulary. This list of antonyms of arbitrary is also provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  equitable
  •  just
  •  correct
  •  decent
  •  allowed
  •  allowable
  •  anti-corruption
  •  accurate
  •  circumspect
  •  dependable
  •  certain
  •  justified
  •  evenhanded
  •  carefully selected
  •  deliberate
  •  defensible
  •  all right
  •  admirable
  •  conditional
  •  democratic
  •  good
  •  conscionable
  •  above board
  •  deserved
  •  genuine
  •  electable
  •  reasonable
  •  blameless
  •  rational
  •  competent
  •  objective
  •  true
  •  appropriate
  •  valid
  •  sound
  •  accountable
  •  convincing
  •  reliable
  •  fair
  •  chronological
  •  nonarbitrary
  •  acceptable
  •  right
  •  creditable
  •  logical
  •  condign
  •  conscientious
  •  clean
  •  impartial
  •  proper

What is the origin of the word arbitrary?

According to Etymonline, the word arbitrary has been used since the 1400 Middle English arbitrarie. This comes from the  Latin arbitrārius and French arbitraire.

How can the word arbitrary be used in a sentence?

According to Your Dictionary, author Max Born has a famous quote that uses the word arbitrary to refer to the arbitrary rule of a dictator in Letters to Einstein. He states the following: 

“The Russian trials were Stalin’s purges, with which he attempted to consolidate his power. Like most people in the West, I believed these show trials to be the arbitrary acts of a cruel dictator.”

There are also other numerous ways you can use arbitrary in a sentence. Try using the word of the day in a sentence! It is used in American English and British English. 

The court’s discretion gave an arbitrary penalty to the company. They said the restriction was being imposed for food safety for the final buyer, but the company met the national standard set by the FDA, which was a federal agency decision out of their control.

The unlimited power and arbitrary rule of a dictator cast a negative light on the country. The arbitrary government statute that was imposed caused the word to regard them as in danger.

The arbitrary arrest showed that when cops have individual will, prejudice will create an objective distinction between how certain groups of people are treated. While some believe that these cases need judicial review and due process, others believe that the circumstances are an injustice for the people to fight.

The administrative agencies impose regulations on a specific value of overall calorie limits, but these are an arbitrary number and arbitrary size restriction.

The arbitrary division of the group based on fixed rules led to one team having an advantage.

The skeptical person led the citizens to investigate the specific criterion necessary to get into the Princeton University linguistics program in November. They believe the corporate bodies made an arbitrary demand requiring a necessary connection to the school, which they regard as a restraint on the application and cause for detention.

Overall, the word arbitrary means done without reason or for no purpose. This word is of French and Latin origin.


  1. ARBITRARY in Thesaurus: 1000+ Synonyms & Antonyms for ARBITRARY | Power Thesaurus 
  2.  arbitrary | Origin and meaning of arbitrary | Online Etymology Dictionary 
  3. Arbitrary antonyms – 267 Opposites of Arbitrary | Power Thesaurus 
  4. Arbitrary definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary
  5. arbitrary: meaning, origin, translation | Word Sense  
  6. YourDictionary: Dictionary definitions you can understand | Your Dictionary