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Looking on thesaurus.com I can find only synonyms for "desert" with negative connotations. Are there any synonyms with positive connotations? Specifically, something that invokes the sense of clean desolation and unspoiled nature.

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Desolation doesn't exactly have positive connotations, even if preceded by clean. – FumbleFingers Dec 20 '11 at 0:01
    
The desert often is quite beautiful. But descriptive words like "beautiful", "vista", and "quiet" are not synonyms. It's not desolate to anyone who looks closely. – thursdaysgeek Dec 20 '11 at 0:10
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'The widest beach ever' – Mitch Dec 20 '11 at 0:25
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What connotations does wilderness have for you? I think some people would say it has positive connotations, but not others, but I'm not actually sure. – Peter Taylor Dec 20 '11 at 9:59
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"Sunny, mosquito-free, well-drained expanse beneath a sheltering sky" might work if you were selling real estate in, say, the Sahara. And "geological wonderland" may be suitable if nothing grows there at all. – Sven Yargs Apr 19 at 19:56
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The Etymology tells the story:

The Classical Latin word deserta (abandoned, deserted wife) is derived from the Latin word desertus (deserted, uninhabited, without people), which is derived from the Latin verb deserere (to cease to be concerned with; to fail, fall short; to leave, depart, quit), which is derived from negative or past de- plus the verb serere (to plant, sow).

Hence, a desert is unused or unusable land. Arabia Deserta is the classical Latin name for guess which country? And guess what it means?

There really aren't many positive connotations available for the word desert; perhaps that's one reason why we often spell it dessert and vice versa. There's rarely any confusion about which word is meant.

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My elementary school teacher always reminded us how to spell them properly by saying "Dessert has two s's because you always want more." – onomatomaniak Dec 20 '11 at 8:18
    
So the root of the word desert is actually a "negative" root. That is important to know. Thanks! – dotancohen Dec 20 '11 at 9:53

Following your link shows a tremendous number of synonyms with negative connotations! Here are some relatively neutral, albeit not quite synonomous, words:

  • solitude, with sense "A lonely or deserted place."
  • sere, "Without moisture."
  • unpeopled, "Not inhabited by people."
  • The Outback in Australia is a vast, remote, arid area, and you might compare an area to it.
  • You could talk about horny toad country; that's pretty neutral, isn't it?
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Sorry for the late reply! Solitude could in fact be construed as positive, thanks! – dotancohen Jan 23 '12 at 18:45

Expanse, as in wide expanse or open expanse, is fairly positive. It evokes a sense of opportunity and possibility, to me: Riding off into the open expanse.

expanse A wide and open extent, as of surface, land, or sky.

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Isn't expanse used also in referring to the ocean and even vast land areas in general? – Kris Dec 20 '11 at 14:09
    
Yes. It would need to be used in context to make sense. – ThinkingStiff Dec 20 '11 at 17:08

Rather than look for a word with positive connotations (even National Geographic wasn't able to put their usual positive gloss on an article about the Atacama), you can use a word that gives an exotic flavor to the defining feature of a desert:

xeric, adj.: (of an environment or habitat) containing little moisture; very dry [OED]

So you can write about crossing the xeric landscape of the Mojave, for example.

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The link is amazing, thanks. – dotancohen Dec 20 '11 at 9:54

'Arid' region(s) is used in a neutral/ technical sense. An expressly positive connotation may not be possible without specific context.

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One positive synonym I can think of is 'The Sands'. This might be a useful version for you.

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Nice idea, thank you! Though this particular desert is not sandy, I could use 'the cliffs' or some other similar feature. – dotancohen Apr 19 at 18:38

Untouched, undeveloped, uninhabited. Perhaps wilderness.

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Unspoiled, too! – aedia λ Dec 21 '11 at 22:01

Thebaid

The Thebaid or Thebais (Greek: Θηβαΐς, Thēbaïs) is the region of ancient Egypt containing the thirteen southernmost nomes of Upper Egypt, from Abydos to Aswan. It acquired its name from its proximity to the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. During the Ancient Egyptian dynasties this region was dominated by Thebes and its priesthood at the temple of Amun at Karnak. [...]

Around the 5th century, since it was a desert, the Thebaid became a place of retreat of a number of Christian hermits, and was the birthplace of Pachomius. In Christian art, the Thebaid was represented as a place with numerous monks.

Social Vocabulary

The subjects range from the pleasures of courtly life to the spiritual rewards of religious retirement from the world in a Thebaid, to the degradations and miseries of the poor [...]

The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture

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