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From Middle English wildernes, wildernesse (uninhabited, uncultivated, or wild territory; desolate land; desert; (figuratively) depopulated or devastated place; state of devastation or ruin; human experience and life) [and other forms],[1] and then either:

Wilddēor is derived from wilde (savage, wild) (ultimately either from Proto-Indo-European *wel-, *welw- (hair, wool; ear of corn, grass; forest), or *gʷʰel- (wild)) + dēor (beast, wild animal) (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *dʰwes- (to breathe; breath; soul, spirit; creature)).

The English word is cognate with Danish vildnis (wilderness), German Wildernis, Wildnis (wilderness), Middle Dutch wildernisse (wilderness) (modern Dutch wildernis (wilderness)), Middle Low German wildernisse (wilderness) (German Low German Wildernis (wilderness)), Saterland Frisian Wüüldernis (wilderness), West Frisian wyldernis (wilderness).

Sense 3.3 (“situation of disfavour or lack of recognition”) is a reference to Numbers 14:32–33 in the Bible (King James Version; spelling modernized): “But as for you, your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcasses be wasted in the wilderness.”[5]



wilderness (countable and uncountable, plural wildernesses)

  1. (uncountable) Uncultivated and unsettled land in its natural state inhabited by wild animals and with vegetation growing wild; (countable) a tract of such land; a waste or wild.
    Synonyms: (chiefly Australia) bushland, (obsolete) wasteness, (obsolete) wastness, wildland, wilds
  2. (by extension)
    1. (countable) A place other than land (for example, the air or sea) that is uncared for, and therefore devoted to disorder or wildness.
    2. (countable, horticulture) An ornamental part of a garden or park cultivated with trees and often a maze to evoke a natural wilderness.
      • 1785, William Cowper, “Book I. The Sofa.”, in The Task, a Poem, [], London: [] J[oseph] Johnson;  [], →OCLC, page 19:
        And now with nerves new-brac'd and ſpirits chear'd / We tread the wilderneſs, whoſe well-roll'd walks / With curvature of ſlow and eaſy ſweep, / Deception innocent—give ample ſpace / To narrow bounds.
    3. (uncountable, obsolete) Unrefinedness; wildness.
      • c. 1603–1604 (date written), William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies [] (First Folio), London: [] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, →OCLC, [Act III, scene i], page 71, column 2:
        What ſhould I thinke, / Heauen ſhield my Mother plaid my Father faire: / For ſuch a warped ſlip of wilderneſſe / Nere iſſu'd from his blood.
        What should I think? / Heaven forbid, my mother must have been unfaithful to my father, / For such a warped descendant of wildness / Never issued from his blood.
      • 1674, John Milton, “Book IX”, in Paradise Lost. [], 2nd edition, London: [] S[amuel] Simmons [], →OCLC, page 221:
        Theſe paths & Bowers doubt not but our joynt hands / Will keep from Wilderneſs with eaſe, as wide / As we need walk, till younger hands ere long / Aſſiſt us: []
  3. (countable, figuratively)
    1. Chiefly followed by of: a bewildering flock or throng; a large, often jumbled, collection of things.
    2. A place or situation that is bewildering and in which one may get lost.
    3. Often preceded by in the: a situation of disfavour or lack of recognition; (specifically, politics) of a politician, political party, etc.: a situation of being out of office.

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  1. ^ wī̆ldernes(se, n.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  2. ^ wī̆lderne, n.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  3. ^ -nes(se, suf.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  4. ^ wilderness, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, March 2021; “wilderness, n.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.
  5. ^ The Holy Bible, [] (King James Version), London: [] Robert Barker, [], 1611, →OCLC, Numbers 14:32–33, column 1: “But as for you, your carkaſes, they ſhall fall in this wilderneſſe. And your children ſhall wander in the wildernes forty yeres, and beare your whoredomes, until your carkaſes be waſted in the wilderneſſe.”.

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