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From Middle English wildernesse, wyldernys, of uncertain formation. Perhaps from Middle English wildern (wilderness) +‎ -ness; or from unattested Old English *wilddēornes; or from Old English wilddēoren (wild, savage) + -nes (-ness).

Compare Middle Dutch wildernisse ("wilderness"; > modern Dutch wildernis), German Wildnis (wilderness). Compare also Old English wilder, wildor (wild beast).


  • (UK) IPA(key): /ˈwɪl.də.nɪs/
  • (US) IPA(key): /ˈwɪl.dəɹ.nəs/
  • (file)


wilderness (countable and uncountable, plural wildernesses)

  1. (countable, uncountable) An unsettled and uncultivated tract of land left in its natural state; a barren land; a wild or waste.
  2. (countable, uncountable) A place that is uncared for, and therefore devoted to disorder or wildness.
  3. (uncountable) Wild or unrefined state; wildness.
    • 1667, John Milton, “Book IX”, in Paradise Lost. A Poem Written in Ten Books, London: Printed [by Samuel Simmons], and are to be sold by Peter Parker [] [a]nd by Robert Boulter [] [a]nd Matthias Walker, [], OCLC 228722708; republished as Paradise Lost in Ten Books: The Text Exactly Reproduced from the First Edition of 1667: [], London: Basil Montagu Pickering [], 1873, OCLC 230729554:
      These paths and bowers doubt not but our joint hands / Will keep from wilderness with ease, []
  4. (countable) A bewildering flock, throng, or troop.
    • c. 1596–1598, William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies: Published According to the True Originall Copies (First Folio), London: Printed by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, OCLC 606515358, [Act III, scene i]:
      Tuball: One of them ſhewed me a ring that hee had of your daughter for a Monkie.
      Shylocke: Out vpon her, thou tortureſt me Tuball, it was my Turkies, I had it of Leah when I was a Batcheler: I would not haue giuen it for a wilderneſſe of Monkies.
  5. (countable) A situation that is bewildering, or that which makes one feel awkward.
    • 2015, Dermot McEvoy, Irish Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ireland:
      After the firm establishment of the Irish Free State, Churchill would continue to hold office until the depression. Then, he found himself in the political wilderness. But, unlike Lloyd George, he would not find himself tripping to Berchtesgaden to prostrate himself before Adolf Hitler in admiration. Perhaps he had learned something from Michael Collins—never bend the knee to the tyrant.

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