“Just Deserts” vs. “Just Desserts”


Did the dictionary … get it wrong?!

We once featured the word comeuppance as our Word of the Day. Comeuppance, as we define it, means “deserved reward or just deserts, usually unpleasant.” More than a few of our brilliant and devoted users, wrote in to inform us that there was a typo in the definition: just deserts should be just desserts.

Was an S left out of this expression by mistake?

Is the phrase just deserts correct?

What these users spotted, as eagle-eyed as they are, was not a typo, but an unfamiliar sense of desertwhich is pronounced, like dessert, with its stress on the second syllable [dih-zurt].

Dating back to the late 1200s, this desert means “reward or punishment that is deserved.” Deserved is a key word here, and helpful way to remember this tricky term. (Think of this desert as a “deserved thing.”) Both deserve and this desert come from the French deservir, meaning “to deserve,” in turn from a Latin verb that also gives us serve and, well, deserve.

The “reward/punishment” sense of desert largely survives in (to get/receive one’s) just deserts, “to be punished or rewarded in a manner appropriate to one’s actions or behavior.” The just, here, doesn’t mean “only” but “fitting, appropriate.”

The expression just deserts is recorded in the early 1500s, and is still popular today, e.g., When the bad guy got locked up at the end of the movie, viewers felt he got his just deserts.

Desert, as in a hot, arid region, is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable [dez-ert] and comes from a different Latin root (related to deserted and meaning “abandoned, uninhabited). That’s why a desert island can be have lush, tropical plants on it. The desert means it’s remote and deserted.

Is the phrase just desserts incorrect?

Now, for our final course of the article.

Dessert, with the double S, means “cake, pie, fruit, pudding, ice cream, etc., served as the final course of meal.” The sense of dessert is found by the late 18th century and ultimately comes from French, whose verb desservir means “to clear the table” … as for dessert!

The origin of French’s desservir is also the Latin verb that gives us serve, which means desert (“deserved”) and dessert are actually related. It’s just that just deserts and just desserts have very different meanings.

So, you could go to restaurant and tell the waiter you’re interested in just desserts, which we hope is your just deserts after a long, hard day or special accomplishment.

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