Just Deserts vs. Just Desserts

By Maeve Maddox

The use of the expression “just deserts” in a recent DWT exercise brought some reader objections. Here are two:

“She got her just deserts” — really? “Desert” like an arid place? Isn’t it “desserts”?

You are surely incorrect. The correct form of the expression is “just desserts.”

Many speakers think that people who get what they deserve get dessert, unaware that there’s another noun pronounced like dessert but spelled with one s: desert [deh-ZERT].

Here are three kinds of desert:

desert [DEZ-ert] (noun): an arid place
desert [deh-ZERT] (verb): to abandon
desert [deh-ZERT] (noun): worthiness of recompense

Desert [DEZ-ert] in the sense of a wasteland or wilderness came into English by way of French from Latin desertum, “thing abandoned.” Desertum is used in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible to translate the word for “wilderness.”

Dessert [deh-ZERT] in the sense of the last course of a meal is from French desservir, “to clear the table,” literally, “to un-serve.” The dessert comes at the end of the meal when the table has been cleared of everything that went before.

Desert [deh-ZERT] in the sense of consequences comes from French deservir, “to be worthy to have,” or “to deserve,” from Latin deservire, “to serve well.”

One reader explained why she’s reluctant to accept the correct spelling of the expression:

My interpretation of “just desserts” was that “dessert” was the sweet stuff at the end of a meal…cake, ice cream, etc. So “just desserts” was you got the dessert you deserved, meaning you didn’t get the sweet stuff or you got something less than sweet.

The expression “Just Desserts” is often used deliberately as a marketing pun for the selling of baked goods, but there are plenty of unintentional errors among the examples that come up in a Web search:

In the end she turns on him, but also gets her just desserts when the mob’s lawyer finally sees the light. –The Rotarian (magazine).

Woman driver gets her just desserts –Video blog

A serial Czech prankster got his just desserts after pals spooked him with a hilarious specter stunt. –NY Daily News

The error even appears in books from reputable publishers:

He should have been pleased that Ralph Standish…had got his just desserts. –A Parliament of Spies, Cassandra Clark, Minotaur 2012, p. 221.

Note: The character Standish is a bad man who has been found murdered.

Corrected examples:

In the end she turns on him, but also gets her just deserts when the mob’s lawyer finally sees the light.

Woman driver gets her just deserts

A serial Czech prankster got his just deserts after pals spooked him with a hilarious specter stunt. 

He should have been pleased that Ralph Standish…had got his just deserts.

Although the expression is most frequently used to refer to a deserved punishment, it can also refer to a deserved reward.

For example the following headline from the Oye! Times (Toronto) uses the expression in a positive sense. [The actor mentioned has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame]:

CHRISTOPH WALTZ GETS HIS JUST DESSERTS [sic]

Bottom line:
Ice cream and chocolate cake are desserts.
People who get what’s coming to them get their just deserts.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


3 Responses to “Just Deserts vs. Just Desserts”

  • Curtis

    Wow. Surprised me with that one, but the logic comes out when you remember to think of ‘deserve.’
    Thanks!

  • thebluebird11

    I am sorry to say that my mother (the English teacher) taught me the wrong spelling as I was growing up, leading me to believe that it was “desserts.” Many years ago I found out that she (and by extension, I) was incorrect when I wrote a letter to a magazine pointing out their error, and I received a kind of curt reply, telling me that I was the one in error. In their reply, they actually said that both forms were acceptable, but here you say that “deserts” is the only correct form. I’m sorry to see desserts go! Meanwhile I have a large piece of frosted pound cake and some Snickers ice cream waiting for me…and if I gain 5 pounds, that will be…just desserts…

  • venqax

    “My interpretation of “just desserts” was that “dessert” was the sweet stuff at the end of a meal…cake, ice cream, etc…”

    That’s a problem with some idiomatic phrases that one needs to be careful of. Sometimes the wrong version makes as much sense as the correct one: Tow the line, Anchors Away, Hair-brained, Just desserts. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong.

Leave a comment: