desert

1 of 4

noun (1)

des·​ert ˈde-zərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
1
: arid land with usually sparse vegetation
especially : such land having a very warm climate and receiving less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of sporadic rainfall annually
2
: an area of water apparently devoid of life
3
: a desolate or forbidding area
lost in a desert of doubt
4
archaic : a wild uninhabited and uncultivated tract
desertic adjective
desertlike adjective

desert

2 of 4

adjective

des·​ert ˈde-zərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
1
: desolate and sparsely occupied or unoccupied
a desert island
2
: of or relating to a desert (see desert entry 1)
3
archaic : forsaken

desert

3 of 4

verb

de·​sert di-ˈzərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
deserted; deserting; deserts

transitive verb

1
: to withdraw from or leave usually without intent to return
desert a town
2
a
: to leave in the lurch
desert a friend in trouble
b
: to abandon (military service) without leave

intransitive verb

: to quit one's post, allegiance, or service without leave or justification
especially : to abandon military duty without leave and without intent to return

desert

4 of 4

noun (2)

de·​sert di-ˈzərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
1
: deserved reward or punishment
usually used in plural
got their just deserts
2
: the quality or fact of meriting reward or punishment
3

Did you know?

Where does the phrase just deserts come from?

Why do we say that someone has gotten their just deserts? Does this turn of phrase have anything to do with dessert (“a sweet food eaten at the end of a meal”) or desert (“a dry land with few plants and little rainfall”)? In fact, the phrase employs neither of these words. Instead, it uses a completely unrelated word that happens to be pronounced like the word for sweets and spelled like the one for a dry place: desert, meaning “reward or punishment deserved or earned by one’s qualities or acts.” This little-used noun is, as you might have guessed, related to the English verb deserve. It has nothing to do with arid, dry land, or with cookies and ice cream.

Choose the Right Synonym for desert

abandon, desert, forsake mean to leave without intending to return.

abandon suggests that the thing or person left may be helpless without protection.

abandoned children

desert implies that the object left may be weakened but not destroyed by one's absence.

a deserted town

forsake suggests an action more likely to bring impoverishment or bereavement to that which is forsaken than its exposure to physical dangers.

a forsaken lover

Examples of desert in a Sentence

Noun (1) Satellite images taken this year and 20 years ago show that the desert is in retreat thanks to a resurgence of trees. Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, 14-20 Oct. 2006
The coastal plain is a desert in terms of precipitation—less than six inches fall annually—but what falls as snow stays to be later distributed by the wind. John Hildebrand, Harper's, November 2003
The house finch, a songbird native to the Western desert, has proved to be highly adaptable, having rapidly colonized the Eastern states after its release on Long Island in the early 1940's. Jane E. Brody, New York Times, 1 Jan. 2002
Adjective While my very American mother swabbed the dishes, Dad lingered at the dinner table, recreating in visceral detail the taste of mint in a Bedouin teacup under a desert sky, or the golden plumage of his father's saluki dogs, or the filigreed robes of the young king at the camel races. Diana Abu-Jaber, Vogue, May 2007
… the place in the Texas Panhandle where Highway 66 rolled down off the land of farms and ranches into the beginnings of the desert grassland and red-rock country that dominated New Mexico. Susan Croce Kelly, Route 66, 1988
Verb Boulet saw his longtime partner desert him in the midst of the storm, then had his wife and daughter skip town in its aftermath. Mike Flaherty, TV Guide, 10-16 Sept. 2007
Left alone for a moment, he feels mournful, bereft—and then panicky, when he thinks he has been deserted again. Richard Corliss, Time, 7 Mar. 2005
But now the building seemed deserted at two in the afternoon, and I soon learned that the paper, incredibly, was forced to advertise for applicants to the staff. Arthur Miller, Timebends, 1987
The inhabitants had deserted the town. She had been married for just over a year when her husband deserted her. He was deserted by his friends and family. See More
Recent Examples on the Web
Noun
The length of the season is a reference to the 40-day period that Jesus Christ spent in the desert, fasting and resisting temptation by Satan. Christine Rousselle, Fox News, 15 Feb. 2024 Allegiant has a 25-year contract to buy electricity from a new solar farm in the desert not far from Vegas, just up Interstate 15. Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times, 13 Feb. 2024 Stone Eagle Country Club Guests brushed the desert dust off and freshened up at The Parker before the evening shuttle ride up to Stone Eagle Country Club. Noël Burgess, Forbes, 12 Feb. 2024 Between Valentine’s Day and the long Presidents Day weekend, February is the perfect month to scoot out to Palm Springs for some fun in the desert sun. Abigail Stone, The Hollywood Reporter, 11 Feb. 2024 Plus, starting around late February, there will be a chance to see the desert’s wildflower blooms. Maura Fox, San Diego Union-Tribune, 9 Feb. 2024 Also, over 120 wellness seminars and lectures are included in the resort fee, and travelers can take advantage of a $175 resort credit for spa services, private consultations and equine experiences, as well as the desert zipline, a rope course and climbing wall. Madison Roberts, Peoplemag, 8 Feb. 2024 During a recent summer in the small desert village of Tastubek, Kazakhstan, farmer Akerke Molzhigitova, 33, watched as the grass her horses fed on dried up from extreme heat. Victoria Milko, Quartz, 8 Feb. 2024 The Airlander 10, with a payload capacity of 10 metric tonnes or about 22,000 pounds, is being touted as the next generation of sustainable aircraft, with a 4,000-mile range and the ability to fly low over deserts and frozen tundra at 20 knots. Michael Verdon, Robb Report, 6 Feb. 2024
Adjective
The ban covers the non-desert regions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and most of Orange County and prohibits outdoor and residential burning of wood and manufactured logs. Christian Martinez, Los Angeles Times, 27 Nov. 2021 The temporary ban applies to areas within the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Orange County and non-desert portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to a news release from the agency. Dakota Smith, Los Angeles Times, 18 Dec. 2022 In northern Colombia, in a semi-desert region that juts into the Caribbean Sea, its dusty roads traveled by the Wayúu people with their blankets and colorful backpacks, is Cerrejón — one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world. Pablo Correa, Discover Magazine, 8 Dec. 2022 Nor do the sunbaked, semi-desert grasslands of Prescott National Forest south of Camp Verde look like the kind of place the wispy, water-loving trees would thrive. Mare Czinar, The Arizona Republic, 15 Sep. 2022 Construction of the mega-project is expected to start in earnest in the Karoo, a semi-desert natural region of the country, in 2022. Conrad Onyango, Quartz, 1 Feb. 2022 In non-desert environments, human waste can decompose when buried in soil rich in organic material, according to Kimberly Finch, BLM Utah communications director. The Salt Lake Tribune, 21 Sep. 2021 Along those skinny stretches of green, the ancient groups built villages, irrigated fields and planted corn, chili peppers and other crops, likely borrowed from non-desert farming villages to the north and east. Bridget Alex, Smithsonian Magazine, 26 Aug. 2021 Much of eastern Washington has an arid, semi-desert environment that specializes in warm-climate wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Megan McCluskey, Time, 1 July 2021
Verb
The winding residential streets south of the Encino Reservoir, covered with tree branches and muck, were mostly deserted Monday. Angie Orellana Hernandez, Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb. 2024 The original proposal on the board’s agenda focused on new child care providers — specifically on helping providers in areas identified as child care deserts with their start-up costs. City News Service, San Diego Union-Tribune, 25 Jan. 2024 And again in 2020, when the double haters deserted Trump for Biden. Doyle McManus, The Mercury News, 12 Jan. 2024 Foreign diplomats and humanitarian workers have deserted the country, and economic sanctions imposed by a bloc of West African nations have helped send food prices soaring and kept even humanitarian aid blocked at the border. Eric Schmitt Carmen Abd Ali, New York Times, 6 Jan. 2024 Bankruptcy could mean more shop closures, Saunders predicted, running the risk of pharmacy deserts in some areas. Jaclyn Peiser, Washington Post, 16 Oct. 2023 The double haters helped determine the outcome in both 2016, when most of them chose Trump over Clinton, and 2020, when most deserted Trump for Biden. Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times, 29 Jan. 2024 City officials believe the opening of the Food Hall might mean downtown San Jose is poised to reverse the dreary economic narrative of an empty district haunted by crime, blight, vacant offices and deserted retail spaces. George Avalos, The Mercury News, 24 Jan. 2024 The normally bustling San Diego State University and Cal State San Marcos campuses were largely deserted Monday due to the widespread cancellation of classes by faculty, who began an historic, week-long strike for higher wages and better benefits. Gary Robbins, San Diego Union-Tribune, 22 Jan. 2024 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'desert.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Noun (1)

Middle English, "barren expanse of land (either wooded or arid), wasteland," borrowed from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French, borrowed from Latin dēserta "unfrequented places, wilderness," noun derivative from neuter plural (feminine singular in Late Latin) of dēsertus "empty of people, uninhabited" — more at desert entry 2

Adjective

Middle English desert, deserte "barren, uninhabited, deserted, forsaken," borrowed from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French, borrowed from Latin dēsertus "empty of people, uninhabited," from past participle of dēserere "to part company with, abandon, leave uninhabited" — more at desert entry 3

Verb

borrowed from French déserter, going back to Old French, "to devastate, make uninhabited, abandon, leave," borrowed from Late Latin dēsertāre "to leave, abandon," frequentative of Latin dēserere "to part company with, abandon, leave uninhabited, leave in the lurch," from dē- de- + serere "to link together, join in a series" — more at series

Note: Note that Dictionnaire du Moyen Français divides deserter into two lemmas, assigning the senses "devastate, make uninhabited" to a derivative of desert "barren, uninhabited" (see desert entry 2) and the senses "abandon, leave" to a loan from Late Latin dēsertāre.

Noun (2)

Middle English desert, dissert "fact of deserving reward or punishment, worthiness, merit," borrowed from Anglo-French desert, deserte, desserte "merit, reward, fact of deserving reward or punishment, wrongful conduct, reason, cause" (also continental Old & Middle French), derivative of deservir "to deserve, merit, earn, be entitled to" — more at deserve

Note: The derivation of Old French desert from deservir has been variously explained. Trésor de la Langue Française describes desserte as formed from the present tense base (i.e., the base lacking -v-) of desservir ("Déverbal, formé sur le radical du présent de l'indicative de desservir"). P. Ruelle points in a different direction, judging both the Old French noun deserte and the adjective desert as a variant of the past participle deservi, descending from *desérvitum, a presumed by-form of classical dēservītum (see his "Notes sur le lexique des Isopets," Romania, vol. 101, no. 401 [1980], pp. 77-78).

First Known Use

Noun (1)

13th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Adjective

13th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Verb

1603, in the meaning defined at transitive sense 1

Noun (2)

13th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Time Traveler
The first known use of desert was in the 13th century

Dictionary Entries Near desert

Cite this Entry

“Desert.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/desert. Accessed 29 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition

desert

1 of 4 noun
des·​ert ˈdez-ərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
: dry land with few plants and little rainfall
desertlike adjective

desert

2 of 4 adjective
des·​ert ˈdez-ərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
: of, relating to, or resembling a desert
especially : being barren and without life
a desert island

desert

3 of 4 noun
de·​sert di-ˈzərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
1
: worthiness of reward or punishment
rewarded according to their deserts
2
: a deserved reward or punishment
got your just deserts

desert

4 of 4 verb
de·​sert di-ˈzərt How to pronounce desert (audio)
1
: to withdraw from : leave
desert a town
2
: to leave someone or something one should stay with
deserted a friend in trouble
3
: to fail one in time of need
my courage deserted me
4
: to quit one's post without permission especially with the intention of remaining away permanently
deserter noun
desertion
di-ˈzər-shən
noun
Etymology

Noun

Middle English desert "barren land," from early French desert (same meaning), derived from Latin deserere "to desert, abandon," from de- "from, away" and serere "to join together"

Noun

Middle English deserte "quality of being worthy of a reward or punishment," from early French desert (same meaning), from deservir "to deserve," from Latin deservire "to devote oneself to"

Verb

from French déserter "to desert, abandon," from Latin desertare (same meaning), derived from earlier deserere "to desert, abandon" — related to desert entry 1

More from Merriam-Webster on desert

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