English desert and its Romance cognates (including Italian and Portuguese deserto, French désert and Spanish desierto) all come from the ecclesiastical Latin dēsertum (originally "an abandoned place"), a participle of dēserere, "to abandon." The correlation between aridity and sparse population is complex and dynamic, varying by culture, era, and technologies; thus the use of the word desert can cause confusion. In English prior to the 20th century, desert was often used in the sense of "unpopulated area", without specific reference to aridity; but today the word is most often used in its climate-science sense (an area of low precipitation)—and a desert may be quite heavily populated, with millions of inhabitants. Phrases such as "desert island" and "Great American Desert" in previous centuries did not necessarily imply sand or aridity; their focus was the sparse population. However, the connotation of a hot, parched, and sandy place often influences today's popular interpretation of those phrases.
- Date: 13th century
- 1 a : 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
- b : an area of water apparently devoid of life
- 2 archaic : a wild uninhabited and uncultivated tract
- 3 : a desolate or forbidding area <lost in a desert of doubt>
A desert is a landscape or region that receives an extremely low amount of precipitation, less than enough to support growth of most plants. Deserts are defined as areas with an average annual precipitation of less than 250 millimetres (10 in) per year, or as areas where more water is lost by evapotranspiration than falls as precipitation. In the Köppen climate classification system, deserts are classed as BWh (hot desert) or BWk (temperate desert). In the Thornthwaite climate classification system, deserts would be classified as arid megathermal climates.