There are times when your surety over what is the right form of a word just deserts you. In place of the usual fertile ground of your linguistic knowledge you find just deserts. Language may usually be a well-earned piece of cake for you, but sometimes there are no just desserts: instead, you are just stressed backwards and distressed in the mix. You have worked so hard to know your language; where are your just deserts?
Often such an occasion will occur when an idiomatic phrase makes use of a word that simply isn’t used anymore – a word, moreover, that is similar to an other, still-common word. There are many such cases in English, and they often lead to misconjectural reconstruals that seem to make more sense, what are called eggcorns, from the misconstrual of acorn. Eggcorns can even occur with phrases that use common words but in less-obvious ways. Common examples of eggcorns include veil of tears, deep-seeded, short-sided, slight of hand, pawn off, high dungeon, vocal chords, straight-laced, short shift, give up the goat, preying mantis, without further adieu, trite and true… and just desserts.
The problem with just deserts, which is the original form, is that the word deserts – with the stress on the second syllable – simply isn’t used anymore; it has deserted the language, or the language has deserted it, and, honestly, it may be deserved. It served its purpose and now it has largely been cleared from the banquet of words… except in one idiomatic usage.
And if you can’t help but think of food when you hear this word, well, it does serve that turn in its way. It come from French but its root is Latin deservir, “serve well”, which is of course also the root of its sibling word deserve. In its turn, deservir comes from de meaning “to the bottom” or “completely” – as in declare, denude, deplore, despoil, decoct, and deliquesce – and servir, “serve”. The meaning transferred from serving well to what you get for serving well.
And if you have been served well – at a banquet, for instance – then the next thing will be for the dishes to be cleared, or dis-served: Latin disservir, “de-serve, clear away”. What is served at the time of clearing away? You certainly hope it will be dessert – from French, from Latin disservir, transferring from the clearing of the dishes to what is served last – or you will have been done a disservice.
So dessert is the end of the meal, and the whole service is thereafter reset. And if in the end you get your proper end, what is coming to you, it seems reasonable enought that it would be your just desserts, doesn’t it? The cherry on top, the icing on your cake – savoy truffle, perhaps, as the Beatles sang, but heed their warning: “You know that what you eat you are, But what is sweet now, turns so sour.”
So it’s hardly surprising that just desserts is now more common than just deserts. We’re seeing a change in progress, and why not? It wouldn’t be the first eggcorn to become an accepted version of a phrase, even by those to the manor born. (Or should I say, as Shakespeare did, to the manner born.)
And, of course, the punning use of the phrase only further helps it to be established. There are, after all, numerous eating establishments called Just Desserts. (Torontonians will think immediately of an innocent-bystander shooting that happened at one such in 1994; the following trial was lengthy and nasty, but the killer did get what he deserved.) It would seem that what is trite has a way of being taken as true.
If you’re curious about the origins of desert, the dry place, or desert, the act of abandoning, they both come ultimately from Latin deserere, “sever ties with, leave, abandon”. They thus have little in common with dessert, aside from that you are likely to desert a table after dessert, and that standard English spelling pronunciation rules seem to have deserted all of them at the middle fricative.
Those with a taste for more eggcorns will like “My veil of tears.”