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An acquaintance takes the German A2-course and didn't know the word beliebig. I explained him that beliebiges Buch means arbitrary book or any book and he objected:

– No, it means the contrary, preferred book. Because beliebig should be related to belieben, which in turn should be closely related to lieben.

The conclusion is false, but his argument seems somehow reasonable. Looking up in dictionaries:

  • Indeed beliebig derives from belieben
  • Indeed, although it is an old verb, it's related to lieben and therefore preferred makes somehow more sense than unpreferred (i.e. arbitrary).

Das frühnhd. im 15. Jh. vereinzelt, im 16. Jh. allgemein vorkommende Verb (vgl. entsprechendes mnd. belēven, mnl. nl. believen) ist ursprünglich intensivierende Präfixbildung zu lieben Quelle

It can be one of the many "inversions" of the German language, when studied from another language (Lebensgefahr would be written Todesgefahr in many other languages). But if not, I feel I'm missing an important point. Which is it?

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    I would always have interpreted "beliebig" as "whatever one prefers" - and in that sense it is quite close to "belieben" again. Also seen in sentences like "Wie immer es dir beliebt." So beliebig might simply be a short form of the latter? – Gerhard May 11 '15 at 22:03
  • Seems reasonable. I see that's somehow also the main idea in the given answer. – c.p. May 11 '15 at 22:12
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    Die Übereinstimmung kann so erklärt werden, dass das, was für den einen das Lieblingsbuch, das Lieblingseis oder eine beliebige, positive ganze Zahl kleiner 20 für den Wählenden nicht zufällig ist, aber für die anderen, denn er kann die Zahl nicht vorhersagen oder Buchtitel, Eissorte. Da auch kein Kriterium angegeben ist kann auch der Betreffende, wenn er ein beliebiges Buch zusammenfassen soll, ein kurzes, einfaches wählen und nicht sein Lieblingsbuch. – user unknown May 12 '15 at 3:31
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    The English word "arbitrary" seems to capture the meaning of "beliebig" quite well: Both can mean "random", with the (apparent) randomness due to a subjective choice: "as the individual decides" or "as the individual likes" – Georg May 12 '15 at 8:19
  • In computer terms, "random access" has the very same notion - It doesn't mean "access is completely random/arbitrary"; but rather "you can access whatever you like" – tofro Jun 29 '16 at 18:16
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If someone "beliebt" to do something he does something "as he loves to do" or as he "wants to" or "favours to", but not necessarily always in the same way, it may as well be a decision on the spur of the moment.

To an observer this behaviour may as well seem "beliebig" i.e. "arbitrary" or "random".

  • I cannot follow what you were trying to write when you wrote: ``If someone "beliebt" to do something''. – hkBst Jul 10 '16 at 13:45
  • @hkBst "If someone does as it pleases them" – Stephie Jul 16 '16 at 10:39
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Beliebig is much closer to the english arbitrary than random (which would be zufällig in German).

Beliebig means that there is a free choice by a subject (which would be the arbiter in the English arbitrary). The semantic connection to belieben or lieben is the implication that, when given free choice, a subject will in most cases chose the option that he preferrs most in the current situation.

So, random does not fit, because it lacks the subjective component.

Another part of the reason arbitrary fits better than preferred is that beliebig is a sort of placeholder that can take various values, while preferred in a strict sense only has one value at a time.

Wir lackieren Ihnen das Auto in einer beliebigen Farbe.
(We’ll paint the car in any colour of your choice)

vs.

Wir lackieren Ihnen das Auto in ihrer Lieblingsfarbe.
(We’ll paint the car in your favourite colour)

Strictly speaking the first sentence allows for various colours while the second option only allows for one (your favourite colour and none other). Of course this is extremely nit-picky and would not be interpreted this strictly in everyday conversations – but this might give you an insight of the semantic “core” of beliebig and make it easier to understand why arbitratry is a better translation than preferred or random.

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    Small correction: a subject will chose the option that it prefers most in the current situation in all cases. How else could it be? – Ingo May 12 '15 at 17:30
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    I guess it comes down the situational context. Let's say a kid has to write a book report and can chose any book she likes. She's a big fan of the Twilight books but choses a different book she is less familiar with, because of the anticipated reaction from her classmates. In this case you could argue she does not pick the object she prefers. However you could argue that she picks the option that she thinks will lead to the best (preferred) overall outcome. So I'd say it's a matter of context and scope. Main reason I wrote "most cases" is to emphasise the "free choice" aspect of belieben – Konadi May 18 '15 at 7:55
  • I never realized the connection between arbitrary and arbiter. Very insightful. – hkBst Jul 10 '16 at 13:51
  • Below, the example of choosing library books is given. Surely not all the books that you choose to bring home each time can be your favorites. – hkBst Jul 10 '16 at 13:54
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The term "beliebig" is used from the perspective of a service provider. It means that you, the customer, can choose any alternative you like (was Ihnen beliebt).

Presumably you will choose something that you like, which makes the choice simultaneously highly relevant and meaningful (to you) and completely arbitrary (to them). It's really not much different from an English tutorial telling you to "pick a book, any old book will do": it just means that the speed-reading techniquethat the tutorial is pushing will work with any book, so they can afford to be blase about the choice of book.

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In modern-day German, the verb belieben hasn’t survived except for rather few semi-fixed expressions:

Setzen Sie sich hin, wo es Ihnen beliebt.
Sie können sich nach Belieben ein Buch aussuchen.

In both cases you are asked to choose according to your own preference as you already suspected in your question. To the person allowing you to choose nach Belieben, it really does not matter which seat you choose, you will still be served dinner.

Note that your choice, while seeming random to outsiders as Kilian mentioned, might have a meaning to you. The new waitor might not know that you always sat at your window seat in the back left and are going to sit there again. The librarian does not care if you choose your favourite book for the thirtyth time.

The same nuances are also present in the adjective beliebig.

Suchen Sie sich einen beliebigen Platz aus – Sie werden feststellen, wir bedienen Sie.
Suchen Sie sich ein beliebiges Buch aus, Sie werden feststellen, dass meine Theorie nicht widerlegt werden kann.

The person using the word allows you complete control over your choice, while at the same time implying that no choice will affect the outcome. So if you want to test the waitors, sit behind a corner in a narrow side-room. Or choose the book from the shelf which is most likely to falsify the theory.

The word arbitrary, after looking up its exact meaning, fits the word beliebig remarkably well, since it also allows you as the receiver of the message to choose something.

I will not refute, by the way, that a word like bevorzugt does more or less the same, except that it puts more stress on the really preferred solution. When asked to do something beliebig, there is a stronger implication of randomness involved.


Side note: Both arbitrary and beliebig are commonly used in mathematic proofs. The reason being that it just requires one counter-example to falsify the theory, so you are allowed (and expected to) choose the case(s) which is (are) most likely to cause a wrong conclusion.

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