1. An uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country; a wilderness: a. now conceived as a desolate, barren region, waterless and treeless, and with but scanty growth of herbage;e.g. the Desert of Sahara, Desert of the Wanderings, etc.
a1225 Ancr. R. 220 Ie desert..he lette ham olien wo inouh. c1250 Gen. & Ex. 2770 Moyses was..In e deserd depe. a1300 Cursor M. 5840 (Gött.) Lat mi folk a-parte Pass, to worschip me in desarte [v. rr. desert, dishert]. Ibid. 6533 (Gött.) Quen [moyses] was comen into dissert. 1484 CAXTON Fables of Alfonce (1889) 2 He doubted to be robbed within the desertys of Arabe. 1634 SIR T. HERBERT Trav. 65 Barren Mountaynes, Sand and salty Desarts. 1691 RAY Creation I. (1704) 94 More parched than the Desarts of Libya. 1768 BOSWELL Corsica ii. (ed. 2) 117 [tr. Tacitus] Where they make a desart, they call it peace. 1771 SMOLLETT Humph. Cl. 12 Sept., She fluttered, and flattered, but all was preaching to the desert. 1815 ELPHINSTONE Acc. Caubul (1842) I. Introd. 25 He could live in his desart and hunt his deer. 1823 BYRON Island II. viii. note, The ‘ship of the desert’ is the Oriental figure for the camel or dromedary. 1856 STANLEY Sinai & Pal. i. (1858) 64 The Desert..a wild waste of pebbly soil.
b. formerly applied more widely to any wild, uninhabited region, including forest-land. Obs.
1398 TREVISA Barth. De P.R. XIV. li. (1495) 486 Places of wodes and mountayns that ben not sowen ben callyd desertes. c1511 1st Eng. Bk. Amer. (Arb.) Introd. 33/1 In our lande is also a grete deserte or forest. 1600 SHAKES. A.Y.L. II. vii. 110 In this desert inaccessible, Vnder the shade of melancholly boughes. 1643 DENHAM Cooper’s H. 186 Cities in desarts, Woods in Cities plants. 1834 MEDWIN Angler in Wales I. 69 Moors covered with whinberry bushes..A more uninteresting desert cannot be conceived.
2. transf. and fig.
1725 POPE Odyss. IV. 748 To roam the howling desart of the Main. 1813 BYRON Giaour 958 The leafless desert of the mind. 1827 SOUTHEY Hist. Penins. War II. 752 What in monastic language is called a desert; by which term an establishment is designated where those brethren whose piety flies the highest pitch may at once enjoy the advantages of the eremite and the discipline of the coenobite life. 1871 MORLEY Voltaire (1886) 243 The middle age between himself and the polytheism of the Empire was a parched desert to him.
3. abstractly. Desert or deserted condition; desolation. Obs.
c1450 Merlin 59 He was in a waste contree full of diserte. 1523 LD. BERNERS Froiss. I. cclxxxiv. 424 The distructyon and conquest of the cytie of Lymoges, and how it was left clene voyde as a towne of desert.
4. An alleged name for a covey of lapwings.
1486 Bk. St. Albans Fvjb, A Desserte of Lapwyngs. 1688 in R. HOLME Armoury.
5. Comb. a. attrib., as desert-air, -belt, -bird, -cave, -circle, -dweller, -folk, -pelican, -ranger, -troop; b. locative and instrumental, as desert-bred, -frequenting, -haunting, -locked, -wearied, -worn adjs.; c. similative, as desert-world; desert-brown, -grey, -like, -long, looking adjs.; also desert boot (see quot. 1948); desert-chough, a bird of the genus Podoces, family Corvidæ, found in the desert regions of Central Asia; desert-falcon, a species of falcon inhabiting deserts and prairies, a member of the sub-genus Gennæa, allied to the peregrines; desert island, an uninhabited, or seemingly uninhabited, and remote island; also attrib. and fig., esp. (of equipment, cultural objects, or behaviour) suited to the social isolation and limited baggage allowance of a castaway on a desert island; desert-lemon Austral., a rutaceous tree, Eremocitrus glauca (Atalantia glauca), bearing a small acid fruit; desert oak Austral. (see OAK 3b); desert pea (see PEA1 3); desert polish, the polish imparted to rocks or other hard surfaces by the friction of the windblown sand of the desert; Desert Rat colloq., a soldier of the 7th (British) armoured division, whose divisional sign was the figure of a jerboa, and which took part in the desert campaign in N. Africa (1941-2); desert-rod, a genus of labiate plants (Eremostachys) from the Caucasus (Treas. Bot.); desert-ship, ‘ship of the desert’, the camel or dromedary; desert-snake, a serpent of the family Psammophidæ, a sand-snake; desert varnish, a dark-coloured film composed of iron and manganese oxides, usually with some silica, deposited on exposed rocks in the desert and becoming polished by wind abrasion; and in various specific names of plants and animals, as desert-lark, -mouse, -willow.
1750 GRAY Elegy xiv, And waste its sweetness on the *desert air.
1913 KIPLING Songs from Books 142 For he knows which fountain dries, behind which *desert-belt.
1813 BYRON Giaour 950 The *desert-bird Whose beak unlocks her bosom’s stream To still her famish’d nestlings’ scream.
1948 PARTRIDGE Dict. Forces’ Slang 54 *Desert boots, brown boots reaching either halfway up the ankle or to just over it and tightly laced; they had crepe soles and, made of suede or of reversed calf, they did not need to be polished. 1964 Listener 12 Nov. 764/2 He was wearing suede desert boots.
1862 M. L. WHATELY Ragged Life Egypt x. (1863) 88 It [is] hard for any who are not *desert-bred to find their way.
1923 Daily Mail 5 Mar. 13 Nigger, Regal Blue, Grey, *Desert Brown.
1885 W. B. YEATS in Dublin Univ. Rev. Sept., In gloom Of *desert-caves.
1879 DOWDEN Southey vii. 193 The *desert-circle girded by the sky.
1810 SCOTT Lady of L. III. iv, The *desert-dweller met his path.
1916 R. GRAVES Over the Brazier 15 Soft words of grace He spoke Unto lost *desert-folk.
1872 ‘MARK TWAIN’ Roughing It (1882) v. 28 The *desert-frequenting tribes of Indians. 1905 Westm. Gaz. 28 Aug. 10/2 This species (Varanus griseus) is a large, desert-frequenting lizard. 1906 Ibid. 1 Oct. 4/3 The kiang [sc. wild ass] is a desert-frequenting species.
1901 Ibid. 2 Jan. 2/1 Two stalwart sportsmen with..their *desert-grey hounds gliding near them.
1894 R. B. SHARPE Handbk. Birds Gt. Brit. I. 112 From its pale coloration this Pipit might be considered a *desert-haunting bird.
1607 TOPSELL Four-f. Beasts 13 They are driuen to a coast vnnauigable, where were many *desart Islandes inhabited of wilde men. 1690 LOCKE Govt. II. §14 The Promises and Bargains..between the two Men in the Desert Island, mentioned by Garcilasso De la vega,..are binding to them, though they are perfectly in a State of Nature. 1743 F. SHERIDAN Let. 16 Nov. in Private Corresp. D. Garrick (1831) I. 17 To something worse than the desert Island. 1856 C. M. YONGE Daisy Chain II. i. 337 It is like having all the Spaniards and savages spoiling Robinson Crusoe’s desert island! 1922 C. E. MONTAGUE Disenchantment xiii. 175 All castaways together, all really marooned on the one desert island. 1930 F. B. YOUNG Jim Redlake III. v. 376, I always except the Meistersinger. I think I should choose it as my desert-island opera. 1939 Mind XLVIII. 156, I find that desert-island morality always rouses suspicion among ordinary men. 1942 Radio Times 23 Jan. 15/4 ‘Desert Island Discs’… Vic Oliver discusses with Roy Plomley the eight records he would choose if he were condemned to spend the rest of his life on a desert island with a gramophone for his entertainment.
1883 MISS C. F. GORDON CUMMING in 19th Cent. Aug. 302 *Desert-larks, wheat-ears, and other..birds do their best to diminish the locusts.
1889 J. H. MAIDEN Useful Native Plants Austral. 8 Atalantia glauca,..‘Native Kumquat’, ‘*Desert Lemon’.
1621 LADY M. WROTH Urania 441 In the *Desart-like wildernes.
1872 BAKER Nile Tribut. xxii. 384 These *desert-locked and remote countries.
1932 AUDEN Orators III, Spare us the numbing zero-hour, The *desert-long retreat.
1844 Mem. Babylonian P’cess. II. 121 A sandy *desert-looking tract.
1896 *Desert oak [see OAK 3b].
1903 ‘T. COLLINS’ Such is Life 91 She had revelled in the audacious black-and-scarlet glory of the *desert pea. 1929 K. S. PRICHARD Coonardoo 217 It was a good season, the desert pea scarlet under the mulga. 1967 A. M. BLOMBERY Guide Native Austral. Plants 101 (caption) Clianthus formosus (Sturt’s Desert Pea).
1845 MRS. NORTON Child of Islands (1846) 113 A *desert-pelican whose heart’s best blood Oozed in slow drops.
1903 A. GEIKIE Text-bk. Geol. (ed. 4) I. III. II. i. 436 On the sandy plains of Wyoming, Utah, and the adjacent territories, surfaces even of such hard materials as chalcedony are etched into furrows and wrinkles, acquiring at the same time a peculiar and characteristic glaze (‘*desert-polish’).
1822 J. MONTGOMERY Hymn, ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’ iv, Arabia’s *desert-ranger To Him shall bow the knee.
1944 in Shorter Oxf. Eng. Dict. Add. (1956) 2487/3 As we stewed our tea*desert-rat style. 1945 W. S. CHURCHILL Victory (1946) 217 Dear Desert Rats, may your glory ever shine. 1958 Times 17 Apr. 11/4 The desert rat insignia will continue to be worn by all officers and men of the 7th Armoured Brigade Group.
1824 BYRON Def. Transf. I. i. 116 The..patient swiftness of the *desert ship, The helmless dromedary! a1845 HOOD An Open Question xiv, That desert-ship the camel of the East.
1821 SHELLEY Prometh. Unb. IV. 352 The brackish cup Drained by a *desert-troop.
1903 A. GEIKIE Text-bk. Geol. (ed. 4) II. 1425/1 *Desert-polish or varnish. 1904 C. R. VAN HISE Treat. Metamorphism 547 In arid regions the hardened film has frequently been smoothed by the wind-blown sand, so as to present a polished surface. Such polished hardened films are known as ‘desert varnish’. 1944 A. HOLMES Princ. Physical Geol. xiii. 270 The loose salts are blown away, but oxides of iron, accompanied by traces of manganese and other similar oxides, form a red, brown, or black film which is firmly retained. The surfaces of long-exposed rocks and pebbles thus acquire a characteristic coat of ‘desert varnish’. 1970 R. J. SMALL Study Landforms ix. 294 Capillary rise is associated with the chemical breakdown of the interior of large boulders and the deposition of a hard crust of ‘desert varnish’..on their surface.
1827 KEBLE Chr. Y. 2nd Sund. after Easter, The *desert-wearied tribes.
1833 ROCK Hierurg. (1892) I. 182 Pilgrimage through this *desert-world.
1890 ‘R. BOLDREWOOD’ Col. Reformer ix, Sun-burned and *desert-worn passengers.