Writing is unnatural for humans. What we are good at is speaking. And that is why we so often get messed up when writing and why there is a whole subculture of people who get their kicks out of noticing errors. Some people thrill to see a self-published book that starts with a “forward” rather than a “foreword.” In matters grammatical, I feel very much the way I do in the Democratic primary: I do take a side, but I’m very sympathetic to the other side. Let us consider, for example, the phrase “just deserts” — meaning deserved consequences.
Most people think the phrase is spelled “just desserts.” And why not?! That is, you may have notice, the way it is pronounced! And it makes sense. If you eat all your dinner, you justly get dessert and if you don’t, you justly get nothing. This is one of the great charms of language. There are so many instances like this. My favorite example is the phrase “beat red.” It is supposed to be “beet red” — in reference to the root vegetable. But “beat red” makes its own sense, given that a good beating will tend to turn the skin beet red. And given the term is used almost exclusively to describe the color of a human face, “beat red” really does make more sense.
Humans are wonderful at this kind of thing. I even think of humans as little more than pattern matching machines. Show a human something meaningless, and they will find meaning in it. When I was a young child, it bothered me that we used BC and AD for dates. Okay, BC stood for “Before Christ.” But what’s with AD? I asked a lot of adults, and the response was always pretty much the same: a shrugg of the shoulders and the question, “After dead?” Well, it’s actually just Latin, anno Domini — year of God. But we try!
The Two Deserts
So what’s up with “just deserts”? Well, when the word “desert” entered the English language around the 13th century, it did it in two ways. First, there is the desert that we all know from nature shows, but generally try to avoid. It comes from the Latin word desertum, which means roughly wilderness. And it comes from an earlier Latin word deserere, which means leave. It is where we get the soft e-sound as in “edible.”
The other “desert” comes from the Anglo-French word deservir — or the past participle of it. Regardless, it means deserve. And it is from this Anglo-French word that we get the soft-i sound as in “dessert.” And thus, “just deserts” sounds exactly like “just desserts.” Merriam-Webster defines this version of “desert” as “the quality or fact of meriting reward or punishment.” I’m sure it would be marked “archaic” if it weren’t for a bunch of moral philosophers and the single construction “just deserts.”
Just Deserts or Just Desserts, That Is the Question!
The phrase creates a bit of a problem in writing. It is about as likely to be spelled one way as the other. And I dare say that if you asked one hundred reasonably literate people to spell the phrase, 90 of them would spell it “just desserts.” If you spell it that way in your writing, you are wrong historically. That is not the way the phrase has been spelled and I dare say there is no style guide that would accept it. On the other hand, if you spell it “just deserts” you come off as a bit of a prig.
Luckily, there’s really no reason to use it. “He got what he deserved” works as well as, “He got his just deserts.” And there’s nothing terribly colorful about the phrase. But if you have to use it, I’d stick with history, and use “just deserts.” But if you want to use “just desserts,” I completely understand.