When selecting between ‘just deserts’ or ‘just desserts’ for a deserved outcome, I bet most would pick the wrong choice for the right reason.
A bad person does a bad thing. You feel anger and you express a desire to see the villain get just what he deserves. You hope karma saw it all and will act accordingly. So are you hoping for “just deserts” or “just desserts”?
The phrase is an idiom, a word that has a different meaning than one might assume when looking at the words at face value.
In this case, neither desert nor dessert would completely clear up the meaning of the phrase.
The word desert can be a noun that refers to a dry, arid place like the Sahara. As a verb, it can also mean to leave or abandon someone or something. Soldiers who decide to run off from their platoon can be called deserters. You pronounce the word with an emphasis on the first syllable: DES-surt.
On the other hand, the word dessert is what many of us look forward to at the end of a meal. It’s usually the sweet treat — cake, pie, or ice cream, for example — that we have with coffee. We pronounce it with an emphasis on the second syllable: duh-SURT.
When we use the idiom in question, we pronounce the second word the way we pronounce dessert. Since the dessert is the last part of the meal, it might make sense that since the idiom refers to outcome, there might be a connection.
Don’t let that delicious-looking dessert photo above throw you. What’s curious here, however, is that the correct idiom is “just deserts.”
So how, exactly, did this happen?
Have you ever learned a quirky grammar rule and then managed to forget you ever knew it? That’s what happened to me with just deserts. Copy editor Laura Poole tweeted this a few weeks ago:
Naturally, I assumed she made a typo about having caught a typo. But rather than just shooting my mouth off on that little platform, I decided I better look it up first.
Sure enough, she was right.
Well, I thought, this would make a great blog post for my Grammar category.
I will admit having come up with “great ideas” for this blog and starting to write them out only to realize that I’d already covered this. So when I searched for the phrase, believe it or not, I found that I had covered this very phrase, though indirectly. I mentioned it five years ago in a post about the basic difference between the words desert and dessert.
So, somehow, I once knew the rule and then completely forgot it. I’d like to think I’ve learned so much over the last five years that my brain must have pushed this little detail right out. I seriously doubt, however, that this is the case. I simply forgot it.
It’s based on a mostly-forgotten definition of desert, according to Dictionary.com:
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 word just, it adds, doesn’t mean “limited to” but rather “appropriate” as in justice.
So there. If you want someone to get what they deserve, then you want them to get their just deserts.
I’ll try to remember it this time. Hopefully I won’t have to do another post in another five years telling you I forgot about this rule for the second time!