All dictionaries I have checked seem to agree on the basic meanings of 'desperate', but here are two instances I can't fit properly into any of the categories:

Situation 1: kid needs to go to the bathroom; mother asks:

Are you desperate? Can't you wait till we get home?

Situation 2: someone has no place to stay; friend says:

You can stay here for a couple of days if you're desperate.

It's not like these people are

  • 'feeling or showing that they have little hope and are ready to do anything without worrying about danger to themselves or others' (Oxford Learners)
  • 'very sad and upset because of having little or no hope' (MW)
  • 'very worried and angry because they do not know how to deal with an unpleasant situation' (Macmillan)
  • 'willing to do anything to change a very bad situation, and not caring about danger' (Longman)

Also, they are not 'violent', 'rash' or 'dangerous'.

The seemingly obvious solution is that they are

  • 'needing or wanting something very much' (Oxford Learners / Macmillan / Cambridge)
  • 'having a very great desire, need, etc.' (Longman)

However, all of these dictionary exclusively offer examples that have 'desperate for' and 'desperate to' in them. Not a single one reflecting the usage of my two examples, with a free-standing 'desperate'.

Are these unorthodox usages I shouldn't make much of, or something the dictionaries failed to include (either as a separate meaning, or a distinct kind of usage)?

  • 1
    They're fine in conversation, but I'd restrict the bare usage meaning 'having a very great desire, need, etc.' to informal registers. Feb 24, 2017 at 17:13
  • If you are asking to use deparate alone without a preposition, yes, you can do that very well. In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett became so hungry and desperate that she ate raw sweet potato from the field, dusty with soil. Feb 24, 2017 at 19:54

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure why these dictionaries don't seem to have a definition that fits because I find your examples to be perfectly idiomatic (as a native English speaker).

The definition (from my dictionary) that fits best here is:

(of a person) having a great need or desire for something
Oxford Dictionaries

It may be listed as requiring for or to, but usage says otherwise. And usage is really what matters. Look for example at Urban Dictionary:

Someone who wants something so bad they will go to extreme lengths to get it.
actually laughing at Jakcs pick up lines? that is so desperate.

That's the highest voted definition, and it's essentially the same as the one I quoted above except it doesn't require for/to.

I would say that many of the runners-up are just specific versions of this same definition (there are a number that define the term as "desperate for a relationship"). It's interesting to note that definition 6 is exactly the definition you used in your first example.


Here is an entry from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I think two or even three of these meanings could fit pretty well with your examples. And BTW those examples are very common usages (at least in the US--I'm a native speaker from the US). It is true that we sometimes use it in these contexts a little melodramtically, though.

Merriam-Webster definition of desperate


a : having lost hope

b : giving no ground for hope


a : moved by despair or utter loss of hope

b : involving or employing extreme measures in an attempt to escape defeat or frustration

3: suffering extreme need or anxiety

4: involving extreme danger or possible disaster

5: of extreme intensity < … a desperate languor descended heavily upon her, and she slept … — Elinor Wylie>

6: shocking, outrageous

  • 1
    Instead of post every single meaning in an unformatted manner, try editing to post to only include the relevant definitions in a formatted manner. Right now, your answer is very hard to read and most will give up before finishing.
    – Hank
    Feb 24, 2017 at 17:24
  • Thanks, but I feel that the definition matching the usage of my examples is number 3 (suffering extreme need or anxiety), which then goes on to provide these examples: <desperate for money> <desperate to escape> <celebrities desperate for attention>. So it's still a case of all dictionary examples having 'for' or 'to' in them.
    – Bepe
    Feb 24, 2017 at 17:27
  • @Hank - Often, new users learn our ways more easily if we show them how the first couple of times. Feb 24, 2017 at 23:55
  • @MVS - Speaking of our ways -- comments are quick and grammar errors are overlooked if the meaning can be understood. Feb 24, 2017 at 23:56
  • 1
    @Bepe - desperate to pee, desperate to find a safe, dry, warm place to sleep. The context makes it unnecessary to spell it out. Feb 24, 2017 at 23:58

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