Several months ago, Dictionary.com featured the word comeuppance as a Word of the Day. Comeuppance is defined as “deserved reward or just deserts, usually unpleasant.” More than a few devoted users wrote in to inform us that there was a typo in the definition: just deserts should be just desserts. Were our users correct? Was an s left out of this expression by mistake?
What our hawkeyed users spotted was not a typo, but an unfamiliar sense of desert, one pronounced the same way as the more familiar (and more delicious) dessert with a double s. These two terms, though only one letter apart and pronounced identically, have different etymologies. The particular sense of desert that appears in just deserts ultimately derives from the Old French verb deservir meaning “to deserve,” and has been around in English since the late 1200s. Dictionary.com defines desert as “reward or punishment that is deserved.” The idiom get/receive one’s just deserts means “to be punished or rewarded in a manner appropriate to one’s actions or behavior.” The expression just deserts, often following the words “get one’s,” “have one’s,” “receive one’s,” or “meet with one’s” has been used in English since the 1300s, and is still popular today.
Dessert with the double s ultimately derives from the French desservir meaning “to clear the table.” Dictionary.com defines dessert as “cake, pie, fruit, pudding, ice cream, etc., served as the final course of meal.” While it is certainly true that a meal of cake, and cake alone, could be called “just desserts,” this is not the spelling or meaning of the phrase that has been around in English since the late 1300s. Next time you’re talking about someone’s comeuppance make sure you use just deserts with one s.