The Meaning of 'Just Deserts'
By Bonnie Mills, Quick and Dirty Tips
If you’re at all like us, you could live on desserts. That’s with two s’s in the middle. The downside to eating this way for chocoholics and sugar addicts is that we tend to get big middles. The question is, are we getting our just deserts or just desserts as a result of our eating habits?
What 'getting your just deserts' means
We’ve all used the phrase "just deserts/just desserts." Notice that the words deserts, spelled with one s in the middle, and desserts, with two s’s, sound the same. When you’re speaking, it doesn’t matter so much how many s’s are in the word. A problem arises, however, when you have to write the expression. Before we delve into how to spell it, though, let’s see what it means and how to use it.
If you get your just deserts, you get what you deserve. The consequence you get could be good or bad, but the phrase usually has a negative connotation (1), as in if you did something bad and then something bad happened to you in return, you got what you justly deserved. For example, if you were in a vindictive mood, you could say, “She got her just deserts when she failed the final exam after paying someone to do all her homework.”
The correct phrase is 'just deserts'
So how do you spell it? The phrase comes from the French verb deserver—with only one s—which means “serve well” (2). Much as we might like to put two s’s into this expression, one s in the middle is correct.
You’re probably shaking your head right now and thinking that deserts pronounced desserts looks weird written with one s in the middle. Yes, you’re right. It’s logical to read “just deserts” (with one s in the middle) and think the writer meant "just deserts"—no rainforests, no grasslands. Just deserts.
Odd as it may be, the word deserts, with one s in the middle and pronounced like the sweet treat, has been used in English since the 13th century to mean “things deserved” (3) and nowadays is used more or less exclusively in this phrase only (4). You don’t hear people saying sentences such as “Their deserts for getting good grades were an extra hour of TV.” Instead, you’d hear, “They deserved to watch an extra hour of TV because they got good grades.”
The sweet treat, dessert, has two s’s, and the second syllable is stressed. The arid place, desert, on the other hand, has one s, and the first syllable is stressed. The noun that means what you deserve, spelled desert with one s, confusingly has the second syllable stressed, just like the word that refers to cake or cookies.
'Just desserts' is popular, but it's not right
As you might guess, many people spell "just deserts" incorrectly, with two s’s in the middle. You might not guess, on the other hand, just how many people do it.
If you do a straight Google search for the phrase “got his just deserts/desserts,” with each of the two spellings, the wrong spelling gets a little more than three times as many results. Don’t always go for the popular answer, kids!
But if you want to know the importance of a good editor, you can look at Google Ngram searches for the same phrases because this database contains text from books, which tend to have been edited, unlike a lot of the results from the web. Then you see that the proper spelling, “got his just deserts,” with one s, is about 1.5 times more common. That’s not as great as you’d hope, but at least the right spelling won once more editors were involved.
'Just deserts': exceptions and alternatives
Now, if you own a bakery or were a fan of the Bravo TV cooking show, go ahead and use the pun “Just Desserts”—that is, desserts with two s’s in the middle. In these cases, you probably are concerned about just desserts. Nothing savory for you.
Although “just deserts” is a perfectly useful phrase, the pronunciation and spelling confuses a lot of people. If you’re speaking, it’s not a problem, but you may encounter readers who mistakenly think you’ve made an error when you properly write “just deserts” with one s. If that’s a concern, you can just say that so and so got what he deserved. Maybe he even deserved dessert.
About the Author
Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.