Why people misspell ‘just deserts’

The misspelt phrase just desserts appeared in a recent Businessweek article. (It’s now fixed, so here’s a screenshot; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to alert them.) This is a common error even in careful writing, and it’s an understandable one. The correct spelling is just deserts. It means “what one deserves or merits” – usually punishment.

Because it’s spoken with stress on the second syllable – just deserts – many writers infer the spelling desserts, a familiar word pronounced the same way. Dessert comes from French dessert, from Latin desservir “clear the table”, literally “un-serve” or “de-serve”.

The similar Latin word deservire “serve well” or “merit by service” led to Old French deservir “deserve”, the feminine past participle of which is deserte. This entered Middle English as desert: “what is deserved”. It’s an altogether different noun (with different origin) from the Sahara or Antarctic type of desert, an arid place with little or no vegetation.

Shakespeare used desert this way. From Sonnet no. 72:

Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart

Nowadays, desert (n.) is seldom used in contexts other than just deserts, so it’s no surprise people don’t know it. Maybe they see *just desserts as a food-inspired metaphor: a fitting outcome after an event, like a tart that can be sweet or rotten depending on what poetic justice ordains. It’s a coherent but misleading folk etymology.

To bring the correct spelling more readily to mind, decline dessert. Remember the little-known noun desert and its connection to one-s deserve: just deserts are what one justly deserves.

*

Edit: @WelshPixie tells me she attended a military defence expo where a large poster showed off a “Dessert Runner” truck. A Google search shows how popular a misspelling this is.

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21 Responses to Why people misspell ‘just deserts’

  1. Shaun Downey says:

    Perhaps some people think that semolina is far worse than being sent to the midle of the Sahara!

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    Hi Stan:

    Herewith my opinion:

    I like dessert,
    It has appeal,
    Its loss deserts
    And ruins a meal

    My just desert
    Makes eating real,
    A sweet dessert
    Is half the deal

    Desert dessert
    Is no ordeal,
    Without dessert,
    I lose my zeal

  3. Kevin Flynn says:

    Episode 25 of the 9th season of the TV soap “Dallas” was entitled “Just Desserts” (sic). I remember seeing it on Spanish television, where the opening captions faithfully rendered the title of the episode as “Sólo postres”…

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Marc,

    Kudos for that ‘sweet confection’ of poesy. Very clever.

    As Stan noted earlier, “just desserts” has become a bit of a clichéd pun in commercial food circles, playing off the phrase, “just deserts”—the legitimate spelling in the context of getting what one deserves….. good, bad, or indifferent.

    Out of curiosity, I checked out the internet and discovered a popular dessert emporium called “Just Desserts” that started out in the Castro district of San Francisco back in the mid-’80s, but recently closed. Yet they had franchised a few other Bay area outlets that are still in business, one situated at the San Francisco international Airport.

    Perusing the comments page for this particular airport location from a variety of folks who have tasted their sweet delights (including a selection of ice creams), it appeared to be a mixed-bag set of critiques. Several customers raved about their scrumptious carrot cake, whilst others were not that impressed w/ many of their regular offerings. “Just OK” seemed to be the default rating. So it goes.

    Hmm…. just thought of a possible name for a future dessert emporium, namely “The Dessert Fox”. (Catchy,eh?)

    Well…… maybe NOT.

    Clearly, today’s Generation-Y would likely have nary a clue re/ the historically-rooted metaphor at play here, i.e., a send-up of the World War II German forces’ sly, and elusive Field Marshal, Erwin* “The Desert Fox” Rommel, who managed to be an abiding thorn in the side of the Allied forces in the vast Saharan theater of battle, for months-on-end.

    And moreover, the thoughts of the infamous legacy of Rommel kind of leaves a bad taste in the mouths’ of many of us early ‘baby boomers’.

    Tell me, who wants a cup cake w/ gritty sand in it. (Not a fun way to address your daily fiber requirements.)

    *The Allies should have played up Rommel’s first name, Erwin, in their anti-Nazi propaganda push. Let’s face it, the name “Erwin” doesn’t exactly elicit fear (or loathing). More like stifled giggles. HA!

  5. Stan says:

    Shaun: Maybe they do! I hope to avoid either fate, myself.

    Marc: Bravo, sir.

    A spelling lesson
    At dessert
    Could be a blessing;
    It cannot hurt.

    Kevin: Nice example. I assume it was a pun that didn’t translate into the Spanish title, but I don’t remember the episode.

    Alex: Very true, that “Just Desserts” is a popular pun in eateries and food-related contexts – and it has probably added to the uncertainty over how to spell the phrase. I was going to mention this in the post but decided against it. If you went ahead and called your dessert emporium The Dessert Fox, the slogan could be: “How you dune?”

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    Dr Johnson says in the introduction to his Dictionary (my emphasis):

    “That it will immediately become popular I have not promised to myself: a few wild blunders, and risible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free, may for a time furnish folly with laughter, and harden ignorance in contempt; but useful diligence will at last prevail, and there never can be wanting some who distinguish desert; who will consider that no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect …”

    I assume he means that deserving effort wil be recognised.

  7. When does ‘widespread belief’ evolve into etymological acceptance? If a lot of people (and I wonder if it isn’t a near-majority already) *construct* the origin for ‘just desserts’ in the manner you’ve outlined (fitting outcome or the polysuch), doesn’t that mean that the expression can be held to be validly written with or without the double-s?

  8. Stan says:

    Peter: Yes, I imagine so: Johnson seems to mean something like “degree of merit” in this instance. It’s a fine example – thank you. Here’s the relevant entry from later in his Dictionary:

    Peacay: Good question. It depends on who we decide is doing the accepting and rejecting. Some people probably already allow it, but no authoritative guide to spelling or usage that I consulted – even the more lenient ones – considers it a legitimate variant yet. There’s every chance just desserts will eventually become part of the standard language (corpus data show it rising steadily in written English), but it’s still a long way off.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    In light of your slightly cornball pun, (“How you dune”?”, indeed), me thinks you owe an apology to the late Sci-fi scribe, Frank Herbert, author of the popular futuristic interplanetary saga, “Dune”. (Just pulling you leg there…. your pun actually elicited a wee chuckle from yours truly.)

    Since you opened the ‘pun-gates’, so to speak, here are a couple of other possible PR slogans for my hypothetical sweets shoppe, “The Dessert Fox”:

    “Come on Dune!’ and “Best Dune-nuts in Town”.

    I admit on the cornball joke index those two would rank fairly high on the scale.

  10. kcecelia says:

    Great piece. I think the “just deserts” waters have been muddied by the phrase’s attractiveness as a pun. In feminism there is the phrase, “men are just dessert,” and as Alex mentioned above, in San Francisco we had the bakery Just Desserts, which was founded in 1974, and in its heyday made glorious cakes. My estimable American Heritage Dictionary (5th Ed.), covers the desert/dessert confusion in a Word History note at the desert entry. Kudos to Marc for his clever poem.

  11. Stan says:

    Alex: Shore enough, I like those too.

    Katherine: Thank you. I agree: the popular pun has muddied the waters, as you put it. An unspecified ice cream emporium called Just Desserts even gets a mention in Merriam-Webster’s usage dictionary. (AHD5 was among the books I consulted for this post. It’s a superb reference.)

  12. peterqj says:

    I think the advent of dessert trucks would improve our foreign policy! Who can stay mad when they have a cinnamon roll in hand?

  13. alexmccrae1546 says:

    kcecelia,

    …. you’re breakin’ my heart.* (Couldn’t resist. HA!)

    Frankly, I’d never heard that particular feminist phrase, “men are just dessert”, before. (Guess I don’t get out-and-about, much, these days….. or back-in-the-day, for that matter.)

    Are you implying that whipped-cream, velvety chocolate mousse, sweet cherries, and, of course, the main ingredient—a ready, willing and able man— would be any woman’s fantasy of just deserts? (Ok…. I got carried away there.)

    Hmm…. so what pray tell (if the man is the dessert) is the ‘main course’, (the entrée if you will)…. not to mention the appetizer(s)….. perhaps in this context, a euphemism for foreplay? (Oh behave!)

    You may plead ‘The 5th’ on that one. (I know I’m blushing.)

    Moving right along—I guess I was off by about a decade on the founding date of San Francisco’s first incarnation of “Just Desserts”—mid-seventies, not ’80s, as I earlier stated. (Clearly my online info source was slightly off-base.)

    Just curious, were they selling hash brownies** in those early halcyon days of “Just Desserts”? On the QT, of course. Or were they responsible for just their almost guaranteed incredible sugar-highs?

    *Simon & Garfunkel’s hit tune title gal, “Cecilia”, is spelled slightly different from your online moniker, w/ an “i” after the second “c”, rather than an “e”, as in your case. Kind of a picky point, no?

    As I clued in from Stan’s earlier reply, your name is actually Katherine. Oh well.

    **You know San Francisco’s reputation for ‘whacky tabacky’. But maybe the Haight-Ashbury hippie era was on the wane when “Just Desserts” initially came on the scene?

  14. kcecelia says:

    Alex,

    I think the phrase “men are just dessert” was meant to remind women that they are in charge of their own lives; that they don’t need a man to survive. Thus, women are their own main course, and the men are the dessert.

    Just Desserts was a typical retail extablishment, with no hash brownies that I know of, though their elaborate cakes were what people might buy after smoking hash and getting the munchies.

    My first name is Katherine. My middle name is Cecelia. It is, indeed, a different spelling than Simon and Garfunkel’s Cecilia. I like my spelling because of the esthetic of the echoing “ce” “ce.” Saint Cecelia (or Cecilia), was the patron saint of music, and seems to have her name spelled variously with the two e’s and an i, or one e and two i’s.

  15. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Katherine,

    Hope you took my earlier post in the mostly tongue-in-cheek spirit it was intended. Just my humble attempt at some light levity, ’tis all.
    (Didn’t realize St. Cecelia (or Cecilia) was the patron saint of music. Thanks for that little factoid.)

    I do appreciate your more measured interpretation of the feminist-inspired phrase, “men are just dessert”, which, in my view, makes a lot of sense.

    One of modern feminism’s basic tenets, or higher aspirations, perhaps, (in my lay view, kinda from the outside-looking-in), is the empowerment of a woman’s life journey towards her personal, actualized self; while not necessarily being fully dependent on, or limited by some kind of ‘prince charming’, ‘sugar daddy’, dominating spouse, or boy-friend; in sum, a controlling male ‘provider’.

    In other words, the efficacy, and rightness of a woman being the ultimate ‘prime mover’, or determiner, of her career path, her wellness, her self-worth, her survival, and ultimately, her happiness in life.

    (The abiding love, friendship, comfort, and council of her fellow sisters-in-liberation, I would think is another huge factor in becoming a fully actualized woman/ human being, from the feminist perspective.)

    To put it simply, the man in the relationship equation is merely the ‘icing on the cake’, or the cherry atop the sundae—— “just dessert”.

    I could quibble about the use of the minimizing, or limiting word, “just”, qualifying the word “dessert”, in the phrase, “a man is just dessert”. But maybe I’m merely looking at this as a typical slightly chauvinistic guy, w/ the delusional ego state, or lofty mind-set of being somehow the superior sex, thus reacting negatively* when portrayed as, in some ways, second best, dispensable, or somehow a lesser person, (dare I say, an ‘object’?), and not the top-dog, or Alpha-male in ‘the human pack’.

    I say, guys out there….. get over it!

    *As in some way, an affront to his basic manhood.

  16. Kevin Flynn says:

    Stan: Re “Just Desserts” rendered as “Sólo postres” on Spanish TV. I think it really was a case of bad spelling by the makers of “Dallas” compounded by lazy translation on the part of those who dubbed the Spanish-language version.

    I’ve just checked the synopsis details for that episode and there does not appear to be any significant plot point involving sweet courses. Furthermore (I’ve also looked up the TV listings in the Spanish newspapers of the time, winter 1990) and the episode screened two weeks earlier (English title “Sitting Ducks”) was known in Spain as …yes, you’ve guessed it: “Patos sentados”.

  17. Stan says:

    Peter: Exactly!

    Kevin: Looks like it was a mistake after all, then. Thanks for looking into it.

  18. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    Forgive me for my attenuated preamble, here, to my main point of this commentary. But I felt a little local context would be in order.

    You and some of our fellow bloggers may be aware that in the on-the-move, hustle-and-bustle, multi-cultural mix that is quintessential ‘street-L.A.’, the mushrooming food-truck phenomenon has become ubiquitous—-a veritable fixture on the lively on-wheels L.A. ‘fast-foodie’ scene.

    Even formerly very successful high-end L.A.-based restauranteurs who have been forced to close down their long-established brick-and-mortar, sit-down eateries dues to financial stressors, are now being seen hitting the working-class neighborhoods of L.A., selling their modified gourmet-style fare* to the hungry man-on-the-street- consumer, from their kitchens-on-wheels. (Have wok, will travel. HA!)

    Historically, up till maybe the last decade, or so, the hardscrabble L.A. food-truck business was pretty much the exclusive domain of Mexican and Central American ‘cuisine’ purveyors. But nowadays, the food-truck phenomenon has majorly exploded in sheer numbers of trucks, and the popularity of an infinite variety of food offerings, which now reflect a more global food palate, w/ recipes from all corners of the globe.

    Of course, the California fusion style (a mix of the organic, fresh produce, approach to healthy eating, combined w/ elements of various native Pacific Rim dishes), is a popular high-end food-truck way-to-go.

    …..which brings me (finally) to your “Dessert Runner” truck. Why not have ‘dessert-trucks’, comparable to those regular food trucks, but offering instead, an assortment of tasty, sweet delights— pastries, tarts, cup-cakes, and such.?

    “Sticky-Buns on Wheels” has a nice ring to it.

    (Of course, ice-cream trucks have been a common fixture (and an issue of community contention) on L.A. streets for decades, now.)

    Hmm… knowing the entrepreneurial savvy, and inventiveness that is rife amongst resident Los Angelenos, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if such a desserts-on-wheels enterprise is already happening out there.

    *These former gourmet restauranteurs-turned-food-truckers may sell their off-truck-fare for a little more than the cheaper Mexican tamale-and-enchilada truck fare down the way; but as the saying goes, you generally get what you pay for. Customers are essentially willing to pay a little extra for good taste, and perceived product value.

  19. Stan says:

    On-street ‘dessert trucks’ are a very appealing idea, Alex.

  20. [...] Zimmer seized the day with YOLO and told us how the proof got in the pudding. Stan Carey clarified why people misspell just deserts. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, he dialogued on dialects, and Orin Hargraves was reminded of past [...]

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