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"Desert" Versus "Dessert"

Do you deserve a dessert? Maybe not.

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
December 10, 2010
Episode #253

 

Can the noun “desert” mean more than just a hot place?

If you’re at all like me, you could live on desserts. That’s with two s’s in the middle. The downside to eating this way for chocoholics and sugar addicts is that we tend to get big middles. The question is, are we getting our just deserts or just desserts as a result of such eating habits? Listen and find out.

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What the Phrase Means

We’ve all used the phrase just deserts/just desserts. Notice that the words “deserts,” spelled with one s in the middle, and “desserts,” with two s’s, sound the same. When you’re speaking, it doesn’t matter so much how many s’s are in the word. A problem arises, however, when you have to write the expression. Before we delve into how to spell it, though, let’s see what it means and how to use it.

If you get your just deserts/just desserts, you get what you deserve.The consequence you get could be good or bad, but the phrase usually has a negative connotation (1), as in if you did something bad and then something bad happened to you in return, you got what you justly deserved. For example, if you were in a vindictive mood, you could say, “She got her just deserts/just desserts when she was run over by the man whose car she stole.”

Spelling: The Unpopular Answer

So how do you spell it? The phrase comes from the French verb “deserver,” which means “serve well” (2). For those of you listening and not reading the transcript on the Quick and Dirty Tips website, this French word, like its English counterpart, “deserve,” has one s. Much as we might like to put two s’s into this expression, one s in the middle is correct.

You’re probably shaking your head right now and thinking, but deserts pronounced desserts looks weird written with one s in the middle. Yes, you’re right. It’s logical to read just deserts (with one s in the middle) and think the writer meant just deserts—no rainforests, no grasslands. Just deserts.

Odd as it may be, the word “deserts,” with one s in the middle and pronounced like the sweet treat, has been used in English since the thirteenth century to mean “things deserved” (3) and nowadays is used more or less exclusively in this phrase only (4). You don’t hear people saying sentences such as “Their deserts for getting good grades were an extra hour of TV.” Instead, you’d hear, “They deserved to watch an extra hour of TV because they got good grades.”

Confusion with “dessert,” spelled with two s’s, arises because of how the words “desert” and “dessert” are pronounced.

The sweet treat, dessert, has two s’s, and the second syllable is stressed. The arid place, desert, on the other hand, has one s, and the first syllable is stressed. The noun that means what you deserve, spelled “desert” with one s, confusingly has the second syllable stressed, just like the word that refers to cake or cookies.

Spelling: The Popular Answer

[[AdMiddle]As you might guess, many people spell just deserts incorrectly, with two s’s in the middle. You might not guess, on the other hand, just how many. Let’s do what is always prudent when we have a language question: Ask Google! Well, maybe this isn’t such a good idea, because Google appears to be confused. Typing in “just desserts” with two middle s’s and quotation marks brings up approximately a million hits. On the other hand, if you type it in the correct way, with just one s in the middle, you get about 200,000 hits. So, the popular answer isn’t always the right answer.

Exceptions and Alternatives

Now, if you own a bakery or work for the Bravo TV cooking show, go ahead and use the pun “Just Desserts”—that is, desserts with two s’s in the middle. In these cases, you probably are concerned about just desserts. Nothing savory for you.

Summary

Although “just deserts” is a perfectly useful phrase, the pronunciation and spelling of the phrase are not perfectly logical. If you’re speaking, feel free to say the phrase “just deserts.” On the other hand, if you’re writing, you’ll encounter many who erroneously think that” just deserts” with one s in the middle is wrong. Perhaps you can just say that so and so got what he deserved. Maybe he or she even deserved dessert.

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & Grammar Girl 

This article was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

1. Oxford Dictionaries. “deserts.” http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/deserts.
2. Oxford Dictionaries. “deserts.” http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/deserts.
3. The Phrase Finder. “Just Deserts.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/just-deserts.html.
4. The Phrase Finder. “Just Deserts.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/just-deserts.html.

Dessert!  Bubblegum and Nerd Cupcake from Kustom Cupcakes image, Richard Giles at Flickr. CC BY SA-2.0.

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