I do not believe that I have ever used the phrase ‘just desserts’ myself but I have been familiar with it from adolescence. I had always believed that the word was spelled as ‘desserts’ and, as all of us tend to do with beliefs, had created a theory to justify it. My theory was that ‘dessert’ referred to the treat one gets at the end of one’s meal, that parents often used to reward children for good behavior, such as eating all their vegetables. So ‘just desserts’ meant that one got a treat that was appropriate for what one did: a minor good act got a small treat while a major good act got a big treat.
This was not a very good theory, in that the phrase ‘just desserts’ was most often used not as a reward but in the sense of being a punishment, to note approvingly that someone got their comeuppance in a manner that was appropriate to their act of malfeasance. No dessert could serve as a punishment. The punishment was usually the denying or taking away of the dessert. But I glossed over that difficulty since there seemed to be no way that the spelling ‘desert’, meaning a wasteland, could be appropriate. It is often thus, that we seize upon the first even faintly plausible reason to support our belief in something and ignore any difficulties.
But when I read the debate between Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett over free will that dealt a lot with the idea of retribution for bad acts, they both used the term a lot but spelled it as ‘just deserts’. In fact that was the title of the article. It could not be that two philosophers who had spent so much time studying this question could not know how to spell the word in this context so I looked it up and the story is pretty interesting and shows how I was led astray by seizing upon the first explanation that seemed to make at least some sense.
What to Know
Despite its pronunciation, just deserts, with one s, is the proper spelling for the phrase meaning “the punishment that one deserves.” The phrase is even older than dessert, using an older noun version of desert meaning “deserved reward or punishment,” which is spelled like the arid land, but pronounced like the sweet treat.
Based on the way the second word in just deserts (“the punishment that one deserves”) is pronounced one would be forgiven for imagining that it came about in reference to some form of discipline involving custards, cookies, or petits fours. It might even make one wonder why there are not other meal-based forms of chastisement in our language; why no deserved breakfasts, no requisite lunches, no warranted teas? Because it’s not that kind of dessert.
The English language is fond of occasionally embracing its whimsical and illogical side, in order to keep things interesting for the people who attempt to use it. For instance, the most common noun form of desert (“arid land with usually sparse vegetation”) is pronounced the same way as the adjectival form of this word (“desolate and sparsely occupied or unoccupied”) [To hear the pronunciation, follow the link above-MS], but not the same way as the verb (“to withdraw from or leave usually without intent to return”), even though all three words come from the same source (the Latin deserere, “to desert”). The verb desert is pronounced the same way as the dessert you eat after dinner play [To hear the pronunciation, follow the link above-MS] (which comes from the Latin server, “to serve”). And, to make things even more interesting (by which we mean confusing), there is another noun form of desert, spelled the same as the “arid land” word, but pronounced like the thing one eats after dinner, and with a meaning that is similar to neither.
History of ‘Just Deserts’
Just deserts uses this, relatively uncommon, noun form of desert, which may mean “deserved reward or punishment” (usually used in plural), “the quality or fact of meriting reward or punishment,” or “excellence, worth.” This desert and dessert are etymologically related, although the former is quite a bit older; the punishment sense had already been in use for several hundred years by the time we got around to adopting the after-dinner word dessert around 1600. In fact, the use of just deserts predates that of dessert, as it came into use in the middle of the 16th century.
In early use desert was often used in the singular, and just desert might not refer to a punishment, but to anything that was deserved. In modern use it is typically found in the plural, and just deserts almost always is in reference to a deserved punishment, rather than a reward. And remember that just deserts has nothing to do with post-prandial sweets, unless it is that the punishment that you deserve is to receive none of these things.
One learns new things every day. So henceforth it will be ‘just deserts’ for me.