The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s for dessert?

Q: Would you please discuss “desert” in its various forms, not forgetting “dessert” and the many pastry shops named “Just Desserts.”

A: We’ll take a look at the origins of these words later, but meanwhile here’s a memory aid. The word for the sweet treat that ends a meal, “dessert,” is the only one of the bunch that has a double “s” (pretend the extra “s” is for sugar).

And this is how Pat summarizes the difference between the sound-alike words “deserts” and “desserts” in the new fourth edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

People who get what they deserve are getting their deserts—accent the second syllable. John Wilkes Booth got his just deserts. People who get goodies smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce at the end of a meal are getting desserts (same pronunciation)—which they may or may not deserve. “For dessert I’ll have one of those layered puff-pastry things with cream filling and icing on top,” said Napoleon. (As for the arid wasteland, use one s and stress the first syllable. In the desert, August is the cruelest month.)

Those are just the nouns! There’s also a verb spelled “desert” (to abandon), accented on the second syllable. So in the sentence “Don’t desert me in the desert,” the verb and the noun are spelled alike but pronounced differently.

All these words came from Latin by way of French, and some are related, as we’ll explain. Let’s examine them one at a time, beginning with the oldest, which may date from the 12th century.

• “desert,” the noun for a barren land (stress the first syllable, DEH-zert).

Etymologically, a “desert” is a deserted or abandoned place. The word was adopted from Old French (desert), which was descended from the Latin verb dēserĕre (to leave, forsake, abandon).

From the beginning, it generally meant “a wilderness” or “an uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But more specifically it meant  “a desolate, barren region, waterless and treeless, and with but scanty growth of herbage.”

That’s how it’s used in the OED’s earliest example, from a guide for monastic women called the Ancrene Riwle, which may have been composed before 1200: “In þe deseart … he lette ham þolien wa inoch” (“In the wilderness … he let them suffer hardships aplenty”).

The word is pronounced the same way when it’s an adjective, as in “desert climate,” “desert boots,” or “desert island.”

The phrase “desert island,” by the way, was first recorded in 1607, the OED says, but it didn’t mean a hot, dry, sandy island. It meant one that was remote and seemingly uninhabited (that is, deserted). Which brings us to …

• “desert,” the verb meaning to abandon (stress the last syllable).

This word comes from the same sources as the noun—the French desert and the Latin dēserĕre—but it appeared much later, in the 16th century.

In the OED’s earliest examples, the verb was a legal term with several meanings: to relinquish, to put off for the time, to cease to have the force of law, or to be inoperative.

The dictionary’s first use was recorded in 1539 in Scottish Acts of James V: “That this present parliament proceide & stande our [over] without ony continuacioun … quhill [while] it pleiss the kingis grace that the samin [same] be desert.” (We’ve expanded the OED’s citation to provide more context.)

In the early 17th century, the verb “desert” acquired the meanings it has today: to abandon, forsake, run away, quit without permission, and so on. The earliest known example is this 1603 quotation:

“He … was resoluit [resolved] to obey God calling him thairto, and to leave and desert the said school.” (Cited in James Grant’s History of the Burgh and Parish Schools of Scotland, 1876.)

• “deserts,” the noun for what one deserves (stress the last syllable).

This word isn’t related to the others. It comes from the same source as “deserve,” the Old French verb deservir (to deserve), from Latin dēservīre. The Latin verb originally meant to serve zealously or with merit, but in late popular Latin, the OED says, it meant “to merit by service.”

Originally, in the late 1200s, the English noun was used in the singular (“desert”) and had a rather abstract meaning—a person’s deserving, or worthiness, of being rewarded or punished. Before long, a “desert” also meant an act, a quality, or conduct deserving of reward or punishment.

But in the late 1300s it came to mean the rewards or punishments themselves—as the OED says, “that which is deserved.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the word used in this sense is from William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman (1393). Note that it’s still singular here: “Mede and mercede … boþe men demen / A desert for som doynge” (“Reward and payment … both men deem a desert for some doing”).

In modern English, the word is nearly always plural, and most often occurs in the phrase “just deserts.” The OED defines the phrase as meaning “what a person or thing really deserves, esp. an appropriate punishment.”

The expression, according to OED citations, was first recorded in the singular in 1548 (“iust deserte”) and in the plural in 1582 (“iust desertes”). As we’ve written on the blog, the letter “i” was used in those days because “j” didn’t exist in English.

• “dessert,” the noun for the last course of a meal (stress the last syllable).

It’s only right that we should save this one for last. It was borrowed into English in 1600 from a recently coined French noun (dessert) that meant “removal of the dishes” or “dessert,” the OED says. The French noun was derived from a verb, desservir, which the OED defines as “to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).”

(The OED dates the French noun dessert from 1539. The first two uses appeared in the fourth book of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, according to Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française. We mention this only because the Rabelaisian origin somehow seems appropriate.)

The word’s earliest appearance in English was disapproving. The OED citation is from William Vaughan’s Naturall and Artificiall Directions for Health (1600): “Such eating, which the French call desert [sic], is unnaturall.”

Unnatural or not, the dessert course immediately caught on and became indispensable. Here’s a succinct headline the OED quotes from a 1966 issue of the magazine Woman’s Day: “A starter. A main dish. A dessert.”

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