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In French, we have an idiomatic expression to say that something was done for no reason. For instance, if a guy passes by and insults or spits on someone in the street for no reason, we would say "c'est gratuit" (literally "it's free"). It means "wow, that was for no reason" or "wow, he didn't ask for it".

I was told Spanish people say "por la cara" (literally "by the face") in this situation.

Is there an idiomatic expression in English to express that?

EDIT: I understand most of the answers, but I feel like there is something missing. I had forgotten it in my question, but when we say that in French, there is also the idea that the poor guy didn't deserve it. He asked for nothing, and this happens. It is not actually for every situation where there is "no reason" to do something.

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Mmh, where have you heard "por la cara" used in that sense? That's not how we use it in Spain. – Yay Feb 17 at 12:46
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I think the French version is quite "informal", but there's nothing slangy about referring to gratuitous insult / violence in English. – FumbleFingers Feb 17 at 12:54
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"Por la cara" is used to describe a situation where you do/get something for free, or when you do something you feel like doing even though you know you shouldn't. "By the face" is the "standard" translation (some say it in English), but a better translation would be "because of one's face", probably a shortening of "because of having a pretty face." But it's only used if you are shamelessly benefiting from something you shouldn't—definitely not to mean "for no reason" if there's no benefiting. – Yay Feb 17 at 13:40
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A lot of people are suggesting "uncalled for" which was the first thing that sprang to mind for me too (and the closest to your meaning in my opinion), but I'd like to point out that it doesn't always imply "they didn't deserve it," just that the action was socially inappropriate. In most contexts though, it does suggest the person didn't deserve it. – thanby Feb 17 at 18:09
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@Joffrey, in English saying "gratuitous" DOES IN FACT also carry that slight meaning of ".. the poor guy!" Just the same. – Joe Blow Feb 17 at 20:12

18 Answers 18

up vote 85 down vote accepted

You may consider:

Gratuitous

Which is a very good fit to the original French. The definition at dictionary.com includes:

  1. being without apparent reason, cause, or justification: a gratuitous insult.

Gratuitous keeps the sense of the French and has the exact meaning you require.

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4  
I think this question also depends on where we are talking about. In america no-one would ever say a gratuitous insult ( it might be different in other countries). We are much more likely to say that was uncalled-for. – nbroeking Feb 18 at 0:20
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@nbroeking: I grew up in the U.S. "Gratuitous" was the first thing that came to mind reading the question. – T.J. Crowder Feb 18 at 6:02
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while i personally like gratuitous better, it does have an upper-class sound only appropriate for well-educated people. i would expect 90% of the american population to say "uncalled-for" instead. just another reminder of the norman conquests relegating germanic constructs to the working class while reserving french cognates for the wealthy elite. – james turner Feb 19 at 0:35
    
The meaning is right on but the register/tone is totally different. Maybe that's OK with the OP but it's worth noting. – Casey Feb 19 at 2:45
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@nbroeking I live in America, and "gratuitous" is exactly the word I use for something done with no good reason or justification. (As do many of the Americans I associate with.) The fact that it is a word used by someone perhaps more intelligent or educated than most puts a finer point on it than other options too. (I'm smart and educated, and I'm calling someone out as having done something they have no justification for.) If you want to sound more colloquial at the same time, you'd add an adjective and an expletive, for example: "That was pretty fucking gratuitous, don't you think?" – HopelessN00b Feb 20 at 1:23

I would say

uncalled-for

From the Merriam-Webster:

(...) being or offered without provocation or justification

Quite literally, gratuit means that nothing "calls" for the insult. Possibly uncalled-for carries a stronger disapprobation, that could be expressed in french by c'est vraiment gratuit, ça.

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This was going to be my answer as well. Especially given OP's recent edit. Commonly used in the expression: "That was uncalled-for." – Waylan Feb 17 at 16:04
    
I disagree. In my experience, in common parlance "that was uncalled-for" is a reprimand not stating that the action was neutral or zero, but that it was negative. It's strongly saying "You shouldn't have done that", not the more neutral "that was not strictly required." Also, when quoting a resource, please include plain text with the source's name (this is per the site rules, because SE content can be syndicated in contexts where links are gone). – ErikE Feb 18 at 20:02
    
@ErikE which is also the sense carried by c'est gratuit - albeit possibly less strongly so - in the context described by the OP. – njzk2 Feb 18 at 20:29
    
In that case, perhaps you could elaborate on this sense to that the OP is aware that your proposed answer has these connotations beyond the dictionary-definition denotation. – ErikE Feb 18 at 20:30

We say the same thing:

"for no reason."

You answered it yourself.

Other options:

unprovoked (or "completely unprovoked")

uncalled for

out of the blue

indefensible

Hope those help!

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+1 for out of the blue – bib Feb 17 at 13:30
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"Uncalled for" is what I would actually use in speech. AmE – Nathan K Feb 17 at 15:52

Consider no rhyme or reason

without any reasonable explanation or purpose

[The Free Dictionary]

TFD also lists without rhyme or reason as being a cliched expression.

In your case,

That guy seems to be insulting each and every passerby on the street without/ for no rhyme or reason.

Update:

If you're looking for a new age, informal, born-and-raised in the Internet term, then I'd suggest for the lulz

Usage:

Why did that dude go on a rage, shooting insults and spitting on other people's faces? Not sure, probably for the lulz!

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Thanks for your answer. I get what you say, but I think there is something missing, which I hadn't expressed in my question. Please take a look at my edit. – Joffrey Feb 17 at 15:56
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Note: In my dialect, at least "for no rhyme or reason" isn't a thing. You say "without rhyme or reason". "For no reason" is a thing, though. I'm not certain about other places, but I have yet to hear "for no...", at least. – QPaysTaxes Feb 17 at 16:35
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for the lulz isn't the same as for no reason; for the lulz implies that the person performing the act did it for a sense of personal gratification – Daenyth Feb 18 at 13:45
    
@Daenyth - I disagree. See the linked UD meaning #2- "A term used to justify ridiculous, pointless and occasionally gratuitous behaviour." "Why? Because I can" sounds like stuff done for personal gratification. An option I hadn't posted. – BiscuitBoy Feb 18 at 13:48

An idiom that has emerged (possibly just in the UK) in recent years is to describe this as "random", e.g.

"Steve, that bloke just spat on the floor, wtf?"
"Yeah I know, it was totally random."

Oxford Dictionaries define random as

  1. Made, done, or happening without method or conscious decision
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The word "random" is not an idiom, let alone a recent one. You are describing a word being used properly as it has been for a long time. – AndyT Feb 17 at 14:21
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Fair comment. I guess it's just that the usage of it has increased in the context of describing someone's behaviour. – Max Williams Feb 17 at 14:47
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This should come with a warning that it is highly colloquial, however, and would be looked upon as rather juvenille in more formal or professional company. This is really only to be used among (younger) friends in very informal situations. – J... Feb 17 at 16:18
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I would say that the use of the word "random" as a stand-alone adjective to describe unexpected behaviour is a recent thing and is mostly said by young people. Finding a usage of it from 40 years ago doesn't change that: one data point is not a trend. – Max Williams Feb 18 at 10:16
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@MatthewRead We're speaking in the context of this answer - "that was totally random" or "completely random" are entirely different from, say, "I've noticed that David's filing system seems somewhat random of late". – J... Feb 18 at 12:04

"Senseless" literally has this meaning, ie seems to have no justification. However, the word "senseless" is so often used (eg in journalism) to describe acts of violence that it has become linked to the idea of violence, and might seem a little odd when used to describe something that doesn't really harm anyone.

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You could use

No rhyme or reason

Something done without a discernible explanation or purpose.

If you don't mind using a single word, there are numerous ones that scale with the "amount" of non-reason behind the act and the intensity of the damage done:

Synonyms from Collins that might apply:

Spitting in your face was...

**

...pointless, meaningless, irrational, mindless, illogical, nonsensical, inane, without rhyme or reason, insensate, uncalled for, unwarranted.

**

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You could say, It's nothing more than sheer spite/pure evil.

pure evil n (extreme malice or wickedness) méchanceté gratuite nf : Killing those puppies was nothing more than pure evil! WordReference

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I like this one too :) – Joffrey Feb 18 at 9:12

Apropos of nothing

Is a thing people say that means "without any reason or purpose" but most often I hear it when they're about to switch topics, so it seems connotatively innocuous.

Another idiom I've heard frequently recently (particularly among programmers wanting to express doubt about why a person did a thing):

because reasons

It's also on wiktionary

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+1 for "because reasons". Not just programmers, it seems to be a more recent idiom coming from somewhere online, and is used by technical and non-technical members of younger generations (~30s and younger) alike. In my experience, it's a great way to talk about an older boss, for example, without much risk that the meaning would actually be understood by the older boss, and cause problems for the person saying it. – HopelessN00b Feb 20 at 1:41
    
I like these two newer expressions, in particular bc they can be used in the same way as the poster uses "c'est gratuit". Gratuitous is absolutely a spot on definition, but it's not something you can use on its own as a commentary on what just happened. – cmcf Feb 23 at 23:56

You might say to the victim, or to another observer "Where did THAT come from?". Or "What's HIS problem?". I think these retain the colloquial flavour of the original French.

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Typical response:

Well, that was pointless.

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Similar to “out of the blue” (already posted) is “out of left field”.

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I'm answering because it seems most of the existing answers are to describe this kind of event, but not to respond to it.

You could try:

What was that for?

Or

What was the point in that?

By questioning the reason for something being done, you're making it clear you don't think there was a reason, or at least an adequate reason.

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Though I cast my vote for "gratuitous," it's not an idiomatic word, so I'll add two of the more common American English idioms that I have not seen mentioned which mean "for no reason."

"Just because" is a shorter way of saying "just because [pronoun] did," but leaving the "[pronoun] did" bit at the end implicit instead of saying it explicitly. The reason I/he/she/they did something is that I/he/she/they did it, which is equivalent to no reason.

"Why not?" is similar in that the stated reason is that there was no reason not to. So, saying that the reason I/he/she/they did something is that I/he/she/they didn't have a reason not to strongly implies that there was no reason to do it, either.

In the context of something being done to someone, both idiomatic phrases would also connote that the person that had something done to them did not deserve it, and imply pejorative qualities on the person doing the something. So, for example, if you asked me why your boss yelled at you about something and I said "just because" or "why not?", in addition to conveying that there was no reason for it, I also imply that his yelling at you was not because you deserved to be yelled at, but because he's an asshole who yells at people for no reason.

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You can say it was done for shits and giggles. Urban Dictionary with 1004 users giving it the thumbs up, says

To do something for amusement or to annoy someone else.
Let's just do it for shits and giggles.

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In keeping with the original phrase's sardonic tone, I'd moot "Thanks for that!" and its multitudinous variations as something that is often said in the UK in similar situations; eg, someone barges past you when there was loads of space via which they could have just gone around you: "Oh, thanks mate, that was just what I needed!"

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To meet the requirements of your updated question, I would suggest undeserved to describe the action, or undeserving to describe the recipient of the deed.

undeserve

: to fail to deserve

Source: Merriam-Webster

The definition here is somewhat awkward as one almost never hears this word by itself. It is almost always used in the form undeserved or undeserving. This leads to the obligatory:

deserve

transitive verb
: to be worthy of : merit <deserves another chance>

intransitive verb
: to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward or requital <have become recognized as they deserve — T. S. Eliot>

Source: Merriam-Webster

Saying "that was totally undeserved" can apply to both positive and negative actions, and has most of the connotations that you've asked for:

  • The action was done for no discernible reason
  • There was no provocation that should have caused it.
  • The action was at least somewhat extreme or it would not have been commented on.

Now, you also said "it is not actually for every situation where there is 'no reason' to do something." However, I'm not sure what you mean by this. Does this word fit what you had in mind? I note that you used deserve, yourself, but may not have been aware of this form of the word.

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...just for the hell of it comes to mind — it was done for no reason, it was simply done.

That's the closest I can come to a direct translation of "c'est gratuit", because it's not a sarcastic response ("thanks for that...!"), it's a description of the act itself. Perhaps it's not something your friend would say if someone passed and insulted you (some other, choice words come to mind) but it's certainly the same sentiment.

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