Grammar Tip: Just Deserts or Just Desserts?
Published on November 6, 2023 From The Editors
Is the Phrase Just Deserts or Just Desserts,
and How Is That Five Words?
We’re all familiar with the idea that different words can sound the same, like the troublemakers they’re, their, and there, and with the idea that different words can be spelled the same but sound different, like a wind that rustles a tree’s leaves and how we wind a clock. Words that fall in that first category are called homophones (“same” and “sound”); those in the second, homographs (“same” and “symbol”).
Although writing software has gotten pretty sophisticated and can warn us when we mistakenly use their for they’re, it’s still not advanced enough to catch writing blunders such as the “runs ten miles weakly” I once saw on a résumé or to catch the misspelling in just desserts.
What’s that? Just desserts is correct? Not so fast.
The deserts in just deserts is a homophone of (sounds the same as) the sweet treat desserts but is a homograph of (is spelled the same as) the arid landscape deserts. What we’re dealing with here are not two words, but three:
The word dessert (di-ˈzǝrt), meaning a sweet course or dish, comes from a Middle French derivative of desservir, meaning to clear a table.
The word desert (ˈde-zǝrt), meaning an arid landscape, comes from the Latin dēsertus, meaning empty or deserted.
The word desert (di-ˈzǝrt), meaning a reward or punishment, comes through Old French from the Latin dēservīre, meaning to serve according to merit.
The correct spelling for the phrase that means to get what one deserves is just deserts, though it’s pronounced like just desserts.
Even the just in the phrases just deserts (what is rightly deserved), just deserts (only arid landscapes), and just desserts (no appetizers, salads, or entrees) is in fact two words that are both homophones and homographs of each other, one meaning “only” and the other meaning “proper” or “fair.”
So, the three phrases comprise five different words!
Roger Siebert is senior editor at Texas Bar Books, where he has worked for eighteen years. Roger earned a BA in English at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and an MA in creative writing at Florida State University, where he also taught first-year composition. In his spare time he enjoys sailing and rowing his homemade boat.