Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Do you deserve dessert?

Today: two common words that look similar, but are very different... and a third that many people don’t know.

The Sahara DesertA “desert”, accent on the first syllable, is a place that supports little or no life, usually because it has little rainfall. We think of deserts as dry, sandy places. The Sahara (right). The Mojave. But there are places under permafrost that are deserts, and even areas in the ocean with no life. The word comes from Latin deserere, “to abandon”.

Strawberry cake for dessertA “dessert”, accent on the second syllable, is the last course of a meal, usually (in the U.S., anyway) sweet. Cake (left), pie, ice cream, fruit. Sometimes, especially in Europe, cheese. This word comes from old French desservir, “to clear the table” (note the double “s” in the French, matching the double “s” in English).

Everyone knows those words, right?

Now, a “desert”, accent on the second syllable (pronounced the same as the sweet stuff), is something that is deserved. We rarely use this word any more, but it comes from a different French word, deservir, “to deserve”, and ultimately from Latin deservire. Here, note the single “s” in both French and English.

I say we rarely use it any more, because, while it dates from the late 13th century, the only usage that remains today, for most of us, is in the phrase “just deserts”: that which is justly deserved. Basically, “what you have coming to you,” usually with the connotation that you won’t be happy about it — punishment, rather than reward.

The phrase is not “just desserts”; it has nothing to do with food, sweet or otherwise (unless, I suppose, you deserve dessert, as the title of this post queries).

How many of you knew that? Don’t lie, or you’ll get your just deserts.


Nathaniel said...

I'm embarrassed to admit I did not know this. Thanks for enlightening me.

Of course, if you're impressed by an array of after-meal sweets, and you complement your host(ess), he or she might shrug and say, self-deprecatingly, "its just desserts."

Barry Leiba said...

I'd say that the hostess's necklace might complement her. And then I would compliment her on it.

Thomas J. Brown said...

I did not know this, but I'm glad I do now. Thanks!

Nathaniel said...

Ouch. Got me, Barry.