Posted by: Jack Henry | November 14, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Just Deserts

The term “just deserts” has come up twice in a very short span of time, so I thought it would be a tasty topic to discuss today.

One of the questions I received is this: “Is the spelling ‘just deserts’ or ‘just desserts’? Are we referring to sweet treats; the hot, arid environment; or something else altogether?”

There’s a reason people are confused. The term “just deserts” is pronounced like the sweet treat but it is spelled like the environment. So, what’s up with that?

Let’s start with the word dessert, whichis a noun thatrefers to a sweet treat you eat after dinner. It’s spelled with two s’s and is pronounced de-ZERT. You can remember that dessert has two s’s because you always want more.

On the other hand, the word desert, with one s,has a few different definitions. It can be a noun that refers to the arid environment, and in that case, it is pronounced DEH-zert. But it can also be a verb that means “to abandon,” and when used in this context, it is pronounced like the sweet treat: de-ZERT.That makes desert a homograph: a word that is spelled the same but differs in meaning, derivation, or pronunciation.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Desert also has a less common meaning: a deserved reward of punishment. And that gives us a little more insight about “just deserts,” which actually indicates that someone got a punishment they deserve, not their favorite cake. And in this context, it is pronounced like the sweet treat. Confused yet? Maybe this chart will help:

Spelling Part of Speech Definition Pronunciation
dessert noun sweet treat de-ZERT
desert noun hot, arid environment DEH-zert
desert verb to abandon de-ZERT
desert noun a deserved reward or punishment DEH-zert

And if you’re interested in the etymology of the term “just deserts,” according to Merriam-Webster, it was first used in the mid-1500s. Originally, you might have heard “just desert” instead of “just deserts,” and it didn’t always have an ominous connotation. At one time, it referred to anything deserved—good or bad.

Enjoy your day and your glorious just desert (or dessert if you’ve got a sweet tooth).

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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