Origin of desert

1175–1225; Middle English < Anglo-French < Late Latin dēsertum (neuter), noun use of past participle of Latin dēserere to abandon, forsake, equivalent to dē- de- + serere to join together (in a line); cf. series
Related formsde·ser·tic [dih-zur-tik] /dɪˈzɜr tɪk/, adjectivedes·ert·like, adjective
Can be confuseddesert dessert

Synonym study

1, 2. Desert, waste, wilderness refer to areas that are largely uninhabited. Desert emphasizes lack of water (though not specifically high temperature); it refers to a dry, barren, treeless region, usually sandy: a high-altitude frozen desert. Waste emphasizes lack of inhabitants and of cultivation; it is used of wild, barren land: a desolate waste. Wilderness emphasizes the difficulty of finding one's way, whether because of barrenness or of dense vegetation: a trackless wilderness.

Popular references

Desert : A novel by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008. The book, first published in French in 1980, was translated into English in 2009.
Operation Desert Storm: An air campaign by the U.S. during the 1990–91 Gulf War.
Conflict: Desert Storm: The first in the Conflict series of video games by game developers Pivotal Games. Released in 2002, it is set during the 1990–91 Gulf War.
Related Quotations
  • "Bedouin women tending flocks of goats are the brightest touch of color in the treeless, waterless, and harsh Negev desert."
    -Ruth Craig Fodor’s Israel, 6th Edition (2006)
  • "During this period [Christian Europe] was an intellectual desert, where the mind was uncultivated and permitted to run to waste."
    -W. Tannehill Essay on the Literature of the Moors of Spain The Hesperian, Volume 2 (1838)
  • "In some places mudflats stretch along the ground, tortured and cracked by the dry desert air."
    -Fred Punzo Desert Arthropods: Life History Variations (2000)
  • "A long line of more than a score of camels was something in itself, not to mention the riders in their desert costume."
    -Alexander Wallace The Desert and the Holy Land (1868)



verb (used with object)

to leave (a person, place, etc.) without intending to return, especially in violation of a duty, promise, or the like: He deserted his wife.
(of military personnel) to leave or run away from (service, duty, etc.) with the intention of never returning: Terrified of the approaching battle, he deserted his post just before dawn.
to fail (someone) at a time of need: None of his friends had deserted him.

verb (used without object)

to forsake or leave one's duty, obligations, etc. (sometimes followed by from, to, etc.): Many deserted during the food shortage.
(of military personnel) to leave service, duty, etc., with no intention of returning: Troops were deserting to the enemy.

Origin of desert

1470–80; < Middle French déserter < Late Latin dēsertāre, frequentative of Latin dēserere; see desert1
Related formsde·sert·ed·ly, adverbde·sert·ed·ness, nounde·sert·er, nounpre·de·sert·er, noun
Can be confuseddesert dessert

Synonym study

1. Desert, abandon, forsake mean to leave behind persons, places, or things. Desert implies intentionally violating an oath, formal obligation, or duty: to desert campaign pledges. Abandon suggests giving up wholly and finally, whether of necessity, unwillingly, or through shirking responsibilities: to abandon a hopeless task; abandon a child. Forsake has emotional connotations, since it implies violating obligations of affection or association: to forsake a noble cause.
Related Quotations
  • "There used to be two kinds of kisses: First when girls were kissed and deserted; second, when they were engaged. Now there's a third kind, where the man is kissed and deserted."
    -F. Scott Fitzgerald This Side of Paradise (1920)
  • "Girty had deserted his military post at Port Pitt, and become an outlaw of his own volition."
    -Zane Grey The Spirit of the Border (1906)
  • "I had a strong and comforting faith that I should be able to organize and conduct an Administration which would satisfy and win the country. This faith never deserted me."
    -Rutherford B. Hayes ed. Charles Richard Williams Diary (January 23, 1881) Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes: Nineteenth President of the United States, vol. III (1922-1926)
  • "[A]ll she knew was that her father had deserted from the Soviet army many years before. She believed that to be the reason he was in hiding."
    -Steve Martini Guardian of Lies (2009)




Usually deserts. reward or punishment that is deserved: Death was his desert.
the state or fact of deserving reward or punishment.
the state or condition of being worthy, as in character or behavior.

Origin of desert

1275–1325; Middle English < Old French deserte, noun use of feminine past participle of deservir to deserve
Can be confuseddeserts desserts

Synonym study

3. Desert, merit, worth refer to the quality in a person, action, or thing that entitles recognition, especially favorable recognition. Desert is the quality that entitles one to a just reward: according to her deserts. Merit is usually the excellence that entitles to praise: a person of great merit. Worth is always used in a favorable sense and signifies inherent value or goodness: The worth of your contribution is incalculable.
Related Quotations
  • "The words of the Divina Commedia are still the mightiest and most living words in which man has ever painted in detail the true deserts of sin, penitence, and sanctity."
    -Rev. John C. Eccleston, from his lectures on Dante Alighieri The Churchman, vol. 53 (January 2, 1886)
  • "I have no sympathy with those who invested their money in slave property. They not only received their just deserts in having their property confiscated, but they should have been compelled to make restitution to the last penny to the poor slaves whom they had systematically robbed."
    -Timothy Thomas Fortune Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South (1884)
  • "Some will always mistake the degree of their own desert."
    -Samuel Johnson The Rambler, No. 193 (January 21, 1752) Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for desert

Contemporary Examples of desert

Historical Examples of desert

  • Sabbata however traveled not by water, but by land, by way of Hebron and Gaza, probably joining a caravan through the desert.

  • I now come to offer you a heart which has been entirely yours, Madam, since first we met in the desert.'

  • Between Daur and Samarra there was nothing but desert, with gazelles and jackals the only permanent inhabitants.

  • He first looked up in the air, as on the whole the likeliest quarter for a voice to come from in this desert, then around.


    Edward Bellamy

  • I cannot desert my aunt, nor can I quit the Swash alone in company with her mate.

    Jack Tier or The Florida Reef

    James Fenimore Cooper

British Dictionary definitions for desert




a region that is devoid or almost devoid of vegetation, esp because of low rainfall
an uncultivated uninhabited region
a place which lacks some desirable feature or qualitya cultural desert
(modifier) of, relating to, or like a desert; infertile or desolate

Word Origin for desert

C13: from Old French, from Church Latin dēsertum, from Latin dēserere to abandon, literally: to sever one's links with, from de- + serere to bind together




(tr) to leave or abandon (a person, place, etc) without intending to return, esp in violation of a duty, promise, or obligation
military to abscond from (a post or duty) with no intention of returning
(tr) to fail (someone) in time of needhis good humour temporarily deserted him
(tr) Scots law to give up or postpone (a case or charge)
Derived Formsdeserter, noundeserted, adjective

Word Origin for desert

C15: from French déserter, from Late Latin dēsertāre, from Latin dēserere to forsake; see desert 1




(often plural) something that is deserved or merited; just reward or punishment
the state of deserving a reward or punishment
virtue or merit

Word Origin for desert

C13: from Old French deserte, from deservir to deserve
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for desert

"to leave one's duty," late 14c., from Old French deserter (12c.) "leave," literally "undo or sever connection," from Late Latin desertare, frequentative of Latin deserere "to abandon, to leave, forsake, give up, leave in the lurch," from de- "undo" (see de-) + serere "join together, put in a row" (see series). Military sense is first recorded 1640s. Related: Deserted; deserting.


"wasteland," early 13c., from Old French desert (12c.) "desert, wilderness, wasteland; destruction, ruin," from Late Latin desertum (source of Italian diserto, Old Provençal dezert, Spanish desierto), literally "thing abandoned" (used in Vulgate to translate "wilderness"), noun use of neuter past participle of Latin deserere "forsake" (see desert (v.)).

Sense of "waterless, treeless region" was in Middle English and gradually became the main meaning. Commonly spelled desart in 18c., which is not etymological but at least avoids confusion with the other two senses of the word. Classical Latin indicated this idea with deserta, plural of desertus.


"suitable reward or punishment" (now usually plural and with just), c.1300, from Old French deserte, noun use of past participle of deservir "be worthy to have," ultimately from Latin deservire "serve well" (see deserve).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Science definitions for desert



A large, dry, barren region, usually having sandy or rocky soil and little or no vegetation. Water lost to evaporation and transpiration in a desert exceeds the amount of precipitation; most deserts average less than 25 cm (9.75 inches) of precipitation each year, concentrated in short local bursts. Deserts cover about one fifth of the Earth's surface, with the principal warm deserts located mainly along the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where warm, rising equatorial air masses that have already lost most of their moisture descend over the subtropical regions. Cool deserts are located at higher elevations in the temperate regions, often on the lee side of a barrier mountain range where the prevailing winds drop their moisture before crossing the range.
A Closer Look: A desert is defined not by temperature but by the sparse amount of water found in a region. An area with an annual rainfall of fewer than 25 centimeters (9.75 inches) generally qualifies as a desert. In spite of the dryness, however, some animals and plants have adapted to desert life and thrive in these harsh environments. While different animals live in different types of deserts, the dominant animals of warm deserts are reptiles, including snakes and lizards, small mammals, such as ground squirrels and mice, and arthropods, such as scorpions and beetles. These animals are usually nocturnal, spending the day resting in the shade of plants or burrowed in the ground, and emerging in the evenings to hunt or eat. Warm-desert plants are mainly ground-hugging shrubs, small wooded trees, and cacti. Plant and animal life is scarcer in the cool desert, where the precipitation falls mainly as snow. Plants are generally scattered mosses and grasses that are able to survive the cold by remaining low to the ground, avoiding the wind, and animal life can include both large and small mammals, such as deer and jackrabbits, as well as a variety of raptors and other birds.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Idioms and Phrases with desert


In addition to the idiom beginning with desert

  • desert a sinking ship

also see:

  • just deserts
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.