Getting your ‘just deserts’

Most people have trouble getting their ‘just deserts’.  Why?  When faced with the task of putting the phrase down on paper, they invariably add a dollop of sugar in the form of an extra ‘s’.  This not only makes the phrase longer but it conjures up delicious sweet options like pudding or deconstructed Black Forest gateau which delectably incorporates pudding in addition to its other essential elements – cherries, whipped cream, and kirsch.

Even the well-established publication Newsweek got the phrase wrong when, in an article on the disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong, it spoke of a condemnatory comment on Armstrong as carrying an “unmistakable whiff of just desserts”.  The phrase was later changed to its correct spelling – just deserts – but the fact that the mistake was made and published shows just how pervasive the misspelling of this idiom is.

It is only natural that people have trouble with this phrase because the spelling of the word ‘deserts’ brings to mind arid environments like the Sahara with little to no rainfall but its actual pronunciation incongruously appeals to everyone’s sweet tooth.  ‘Deserts’, however, in this instance, has nothing to do with dry, hot regions or mouth-watering final courses. Instead, the noun owes its origins to the Latin word deservire meaning 'serve well' or 'merit by service' which, in turn, led to the Old French word deserver meaning 'deserve' and desert in Middle English, meaning 'what is deserved'.  This association between desert and getting what one deserves appears in Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 72 which speaks of the concoction of “a virtuous lie” doing “more for me than mine own desert”.

The particular derivation of the noun desert and it connection to the word deserve may be little known today but if we take it into account, it does help to make the meaning of ‘just deserts’ clearer and it may even lead to a reduction in the intake of the extra ‘s’.  The phrase ‘just deserts’ is short but it is far from sweet.