Just desserts please

Photo by K. Lillehei Bakhtiar

Desserts, we do love them. And English, you have to love it too. I definitely do or else I would find myself in tears at times with the many little annoying nuances of the language. Let’s look at some examples of phrases that differ just ever so slightly.

First, a personal favorite, but not an actual phrase with any specific idiomatic sense, is “just desserts” as in “this menu contains just desserts”. I presume that this statement would be in reference to a separate dessert menu at some posh restaurant. Skip the main course and proceed directly to the main event, please!

Next we have the phrase (idiomatic indeed) “just deserts,” but this spelling of “deserts” does not refer to the large expanses of sand devoid of vegetation. The phrase “just deserts” is defined by Oxford as “what a person deserves with regard to reward or (more usually) punishment.” The Macquarie Dictionary (the pride of Strine) defines the phrase as “a misfortune or punishment viewed as being richly deserved.” And Webster’s New World Dictionary, 4th Edition, concurs … “deserved reward or punishment.” So that’s good. At least we English speakers on all sides of the Atlantic and Pacific agree on the basic idea. But based on the pronunciation, it is easy to see why we confuse the spelling of deserts and desserts when referring to the “deserved reward or punishment.”

Checking several sources it appears that “just deserts” was in print for the first time in 1599. Spelling rules were somewhat less strict, or non-existent, at that time.  The etymology of the noun phrase is circa 1300, from Old French deserte, used as a noun from the past participle of deservir “be worthy to have.” Here’s where the original spelling with one “s” entered English. The noun “desert” (wasteland) derived more directly from Latin as desertum (desert).

But back to the pronunciation; the phrase “just deserts” is the same as “just desserts” (the after-dinner delight). We pronounce the noun “deserts”, the treeless expanses of desolation with little or no water, with an accent on the first syllable, but not so in the phrase “just deserts” where the accent is on the last syllable and hence the same pronunciation as the noun “dessert”. Probably why we spell it incorrectly so often. The idiomatic use of “just deserts” is pronounced exactly like the chocolate confection pictured above, but is spelled like the “dry wasteland.”  By the way, the verb “to desert” (forsake, abandon, leave) has the accent on the second syllable too, so it also sounds exactly like the yummy noun “dessert”.

Confused? Yes, me too, and every poor soul who tries to learn English as a second or foreign language.

Of course there are instances where you might want to write “just deserts” when referring to the Sahara, Gobi, Kalahari, etc. But the frequency of these two words together in this context, with the concrete meaning of land formations, would be somewhat contrived or artificial.

Couldn’t we make a case for changing the spelling to “just desserts” as being a reward? Desserts are usually a reward, seldom a punishment though. I suspect that, to quote Bob Dylan, the times are a-changing for this phrase. Many changes in the language are the result of a misspelling or misinterpretation of a word or phrase; often common usage eventually wins out. Click here for more about how Oxford University Press determines when to accept changes. If we were to change the spelling of the phrase to “just desserts” though, then the meaning might begin to change too, and the sense of punishment (the more prevalent one, and in fact, it seems the only one in Macquarie Dictionary) might be lost. Food for thought. Apologies for the pun.

But there is some hope. Many of our Tansa editors dislike the use, or at least overuse, of what they consider stale and trite expressions such as “just deserts”. So the best solution. Avoid them. Save the idiomatic use for your social media pages or blog. In your Tansa Auxiliary Dictionary mark them both as “warnings” so that the only instances of “just deserts” will be in articles on travelling the world’s wastelands and “just desserts” only in restaurant reviews.

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

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