Confusion about the phrase “just deserts” has popped up recently—appearing as “just desserts"—in several news media, including the no-nonsense Business Week. Tch, tch. As I’m sure you know without my telling you, the phrase has nothing to do with the sweet final course of a meal, which is spelled “dessert” and pronounced duh-ZURT. But “just deserts” also has no relation to the verb “desert” (also pronounced duh-ZURT) that means “abandon or leave one’s duty,” or to the noun “desert” (pronounced DEZ-urt), meaning “arid wasteland.”
“Just deserts,” meaning “suitable reward or punishment,” had its origin around 1300 in Old French deserte, a noun formed from the verb deservir (“be worthy to have”), ultimately from the Latin deservire (“serve well”). As Hamlet tells Polonius, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”
The verb “desert”, confusingly spelled and pronounced the same way, is late fourteenth-century, from the twelfth-century Old French word deserter, meaning “leave, forsake, abandon, give up,” derived from the Latin desertare. “Desert” was first recorded in the sense of going AWOL from military duty about 1640.
The identically spelled (but differently pronounced) noun “desert” originated in early thirteenth century, from the French desert meaning “wasteland, destruction, ruin,” derived from Late Latin desertum, meaning a “thing that has been abandoned.” By the Middle Ages the word commonly was understood as an “arid, treeless region.”
Finally, “dessert”—which we can have if we clean our plates—is a sixteenth-century word, from the French desservir, meaning “clear the table,” referring to the last course to be served.
The muddled situation is probably not helped by the town in Maine called Mount Desert, which is pronounced by many locals as “duh-ZURT,” in an imprecise approximation of the French name given to the area by explorer Samuel de Champlain, Île des Monts Déserts, “island of the bare mountains.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has a sweet tooth and thinks his just deserts are just desserts.
A sweet and toothsome young Peach Melba
And a Charlotte Russe
Competed fiercely for the favors
Of a Chocolate Mousse.
They called each other nasty names:
“You’re overripe,” said Charlotte.
To which the angry Melba yelled,
“You spoiled and rotten harlot!”
Distressed by their belligerence,
Which almost broke his heart,
The Mousse took up with a Tipsy Cake
And a juicy Raspberry Tart.