Famous Sayings: #72 — ‘Just Deserts’

July 29, 2017

I guess you can say he got his just deserts.

just deserts, desert, dessert, famous sayings
The “deserts” in the phrase does not refer to dry, arid lands or sweet treats.

When people say “Just deserts,” they may not know that they are pronouncing a different word. In fact, this famous saying is an eggcorn, because it often involves a spelling error which is “based on the mishearing of a word, or misunderstanding of its context” (Wise Geek).

Now, you may think I spelled that incorrectly, but I didn’t. The phrase “just deserts” does not have a double “s” like the word for sweat treats does. Instead, the plural of “desert” is being used.

Over at The Phrase Finder, Gary Martin revealed that he was often contacted by readers about the spelling of the word “deserts” in “just deserts.” Most readers would insist that the spelling should be “desserts,” but they were incorrect. (Incidentally, most of the people contacting Martin about this idiom were from Australia.)

If one visits The Grammartist website, they may read that spelling for “just deserts” as “just desserts” is “not a serious error. However, some people in the know might be bothered by it. In any event, the term “desert” as it’s used hear is rare and obsolete.

That said, let’s first look at the word “deserts” to clear up any confusion.


What’s the Difference Between Deserts and Desert?

When we use the phrase “just deserts,” the word “desert” does not mean “arid, dry, sandy area,” but it means “to get what’s coming to you.” Think of the word “deserve,” which has the same verbal sounds.

That means desert (pronounced “di-zurt”) and desert (pronounced “de-zurt” are homonyms (two words that either sound the same or spelled the same). Also, both come from Latin.

The first term comes from the Latin word deservire, which means “to serve well” or “to serve zealously.” Between the third and sixth centuries A.D., the word’s meaning was shifted to “to be entitled because one served well.” The word was adapted to French and eventually translated to “deserve” in English. At the same time, the word “desert,” which means “to get what coming to you,” also emerged in the English Language.

The second term comes from the Latin word deserere, which means “to forsake” (Hiskey). The term also gave rise to the cognate “desert,” which means “to abandon.” The Latin term was adapted in Old French and Middle English (Wise Geek).


What Does the Phrase ‘Just Deserts’ Mean?

We instinctively know the meaning of “just deserts,” but I think it largely has a negative connotation. That was certainly the case at Merriam-Webster, which only mentioned a just punishment. The entry at Wiktionary for “just deserts” listed these words as synonyms: payback, poetic justice, and comeuppance, which are also negative.

However, the phrase can also have a positive connotation, given the meaning of the word “deserts.” If someone has “served [someone else] well,” that person will have earned a just reward.


Now, Where Did the Phrase Originate?

The Dictionary.com blog entry I found said the phrase “just deserts” has been around since the late 1300’s. However, Martin said the word “deserts,” as in “things deserved,” has been around at least as far back as the 13th century.

The phrase as we know it evolved from “just desert,” which emerged in the 16th century. It can be found in this 16th century line in Warning Faire Women (1599):

Upon a pillory – that al the world may see, A just desert for such impiety.


Works Cited

Hiskey, Daven. “It’s ‘Just Deserts’ Not ‘Just Desserts.’” Today, I Found Out. 19, July 2010. Web. Retrieved 28 July 2017. <http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/07/its-just-deserts-not-just-desserts/>.

Dictionary.com. “Is it Just Deserts or Just Desserts?” Dictionary.com Blog. 27 May 2015. Weblog. Retrived 28 July 2017. <http://blog.dictionary.com/just-deserts/>.

Just Desserts. Web. Retrieved 28 July 2017. <http://www.justdesserts.com/>.

“Just Deserts | Definition of Just Deserts at Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster Online. Web. Retrieved 28 July 2017. Web. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/just%20deserts>.

“Just deserts vs. just desserts.” The Grammarist. Web. Retrieved 28 July 2017. <http://grammarist.com/spelling/just-deserts-just-desserts/>.

Martin, Gary. “Just deserts.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 29 July 2017. Web. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/just-deserts.html>.

Various. “just deserts.” Wiktionary. Last Updated 25 May 2017. Web. Retrieved 28 July 2017. <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/just_deserts>.

“What does ‘Just Deserts’ Mean?” Wise Geek. Web. Retrieved 28 July 2017. <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-does-just-deserts-mean.htm>.

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