Q&A: Just desserts or just deserts?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we have deserted our dessert…

Q: Hi AWC, my friend was emailing me the other day about someone who had karma come back to bite them.

A: Karma would be a great name for a dog…

Q: Um, yeah okay. So anyway, they said that the person had got their “just deserts” – and I immediately corrected them. Why do so many people mix up desert and dessert?

A: So, you’d like us to talk about that today, would you?

Q: Yes please.

A: Actually, no, we’re not going to. A desert is a dry place and a dessert is something you eat after dinner. If you leave someone high and dry, you desert them – which is funny, because many deserts are indeed, high and dry.

Q: Are you enjoying yourself?

A: Yes, that was fun. Thanks.

Q: Well, now what?

A: Are you ready to have your mind blown?

Q: Yes please.

A: The saying “just deserts” – it has just one S.

Q: It has three.

A: Oh, okay smartypants. But it has just a single S in the middle, not a double.

Q: Seriously? But I’ve been spelling it “just desserts” all my life. It’s like “revenge is a dish best served cold” – I always saw that as ice cream. Desserts are just made for vengeance, surely?

A: That may be so, but this particular phrase is all about getting something that you DESERVE – and it dates all the way back to the 13th century and the Old French verb deservir meaning “to deserve”.

Q: Everything I’ve ever known is a lie…

A: To get your “just deserts” is to get your “deserved reward” – and it’s this meaning that has endured for over 700 years.

Q: So wait, is there a modern version of “desert” that has that particular meaning?

A: There sure is. In fact, look it up in Macquarie Dictionary and you’ll have three completely separate entries. The first – a noun for the dry place. The second – a verb for abandoning or forsaking. And finally, drum roll please…

Q: Just tell me.

A: Ahem. Okay. The third is a noun, meaning “that which is deserved; a due reward or punishment.”

Q: I never knew this.

A: We should add that the plural form is about all you’ll ever see – everything else is listed as obsolete. In fact, the phrase “just deserts” is at this point something of a life support machine for the noun “desert” in this context. It appears to be the only reason it has survived.

Q: My mind is still blown from people not actually getting the chocolate mousse or ice cream that they deserved. Although it makes more sense now!

A: It does when you hear the origin story. But it remains one of those sayings that even the pointiest of perfectionists have been known to get wrong. You shouldn’t feel bad for thinking it was the sweet treat variety this whole time.

Q: I know right? I’m going to celebrate this new knowledge by ordering lots of food at a restaurant… just read what’s on that card…

A: This card? Um, okay… A restaurant you say? Will you be eating a lot of main courses, perhaps?

Q: No! Just desserts!

A: Groan…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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