‘Just deserts’ or ‘Just desserts’?

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.


  1. says

    I’m not big on punishment, so I’ll have just desserts, please. Lots of them, with chocolate and cake. Dunno when i learned about the spelling thingy, but I’ve known for a while.
    I also use this trick to remember if the sandy place or the sugary treat gets more esses: Dessert gets two because you never say no to a second one.

  2. says

    Next up: it’s “home in on” not “hone in on” -- honing is a process of sharpening something with abrasive, homing is targeting something. It drives me nuts; I see even journalists (who supposedly have editors) uising “hone in on.”

  3. cartomancer says

    When a king is dividing up his lands between his good son and his bad son, and decides to leave the bad one only the dry, arid areas, we have an amusing case where the son’s just deserts are just deserts. Probably because said son just deserts his responsibilities and can’t be trusted to rule well.

    Just desserts, on the other hand, refers to pudding after a meal at the Old Bailey. (I am led to believe that Americans have a slightly different usage for the word pudding, though I don’t know exactly what it is. Being British, however, I am certain that it is wrong, and wrong in proportion to the extent it differs from the British (by which we all, of course, mean, the correct) usage).

  4. cartomancer says

    Marcus, #4,

    I’ve seen both used. I always thought that “hone in on” was derived from achieving a progressively sharper and thus more precise understanding of the matter at hand. It never actually crossed my mind that it might be a misspelling of home in on.

  5. Mano Singham says

    According to Merriam-Webster, “Although hone in on is widely used, many people regard it as an error for home in on.”

    This may be yet another case where popular usage replaces its original spelling.

    Another case is where people write “tow the line” when it originated as “toe the line“.

    The phrase derives from track-and-field events in which athletes are required to place a foot on a starting line and wait for the signal to go. Race officials used to shout “Toe the line!” where now they shout “On your marks!” Since entering the language, the idiom has developed to mean do what is expected or act according to someone else’s rules or expectations.

    This switching often happens when people use phrases without thinking about the visual image it conjures up that resulted in the idiom being originally created. If one did, one would realize that ‘tow the line’ does not conform to the sense of following a rule.

  6. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer @#3,

    Although I have lived in the US for over forty years, I have never heard anyone utter the word ‘pudding’ except in ads for an item known as Jello pudding. I have people in Sri Lanka use it in the same sense as people in the UK. Sometimes it is used as a generic term for any dessert, but most times for a specific custardy dessert like the Jello pudding

  7. Jazzlet says

    No dessert could serve as a punishment.

    Slow baked bananas. I would not recommend them, neither would the other three people who had the misfortune to try them, including the person who cooked them. Disgusting.

  8. Master1 says

    So why do Americans often mispronounce “router” (rooter) as “rowter”? A route (root) is French, as en en route (nasal “en”) followed by “route”. (French accent.) a Rout is when the army panics and runs away.

  9. Malcolm says

    Mano the phrase toe the lie goes all the way back to the original olympics which were held in Ancient Greece at Olympia. You can even see a line of bricks where the line was with a line incised in which foot racers had to “toe” or be disqualified. Picture on link

  10. says

    Marcus @#2

    It drives me nuts; I see even journalists (who supposedly have editors) uising “hone in on.”

    What drives me nuts instead is English spelling per se. Pretty much every other language on this planet has a better and more coherent spelling system. Just how did I end up blogging in a language with such ridiculous spelling rules? Oh right, English speaking people did the best job at imperialism and conquests that eradicated local cultures and languages, thus nowadays everybody else on this planet must learn English as a second language.

  11. Mano Singham says

    Master1 at #8,

    While many Americans do pronounce ‘route’ to rhyme with ‘rout’, there is no unanimity on this. Listen to Chuck Berry singing a hit song ‘Route 66’ (about the famous main highway that went east-west across a large part of the US, originally from Chicago to Los Angeles before the interstate system made it less necessary) where he rhymes it with ‘root’.

    But they do pronounce ‘router’ as ‘rout’-er. I don’t think I have heard anyone say ‘root’-er.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    One of the few things about common usage that really irks me is the number of anglophones who pronounce “coup de grâce” as “coo de graw”, which sounds like the French “coup de gras” -- “fat shot”, or “blow of fat”. Maybe hitting someone very hard with a slab of lard to put them out of their misery?

    Funnily enough, it’s been mostly Americans I’ve heard do the mangling.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Desserts as punishment? Rice pudding, Christmas pudding*, anything made from gingerbread, cakes with obscene amounts of cream or icing.

    *This can be rendered palatable by drowning in custard.

  14. says

    Someone should ask Bosack or Lerner how they pronounced it when they built the darned things. Prior to then, they were called “IMP”s (Interface Message Processor)

  15. says

    As I tell my students, “A desert is hot, a dessert is cold.”

    Desert (first syllable stress) means arid land, but desert (second syllable, pronounce the same as dessert) means to abandon. I’d be more inclined to believe “just desserts” is akin to another idiom, “just rewards”.

    And remember: It’s no coincidence that “desserts” is “stressed” spelt backward.

  16. Ridana says

    No dessert could serve as a punishment.

    Not even those lime jello molds with marshmallows and tangerines?
    “Tow the line” makes me flinch, but I think people that use it, if they consider it at all, are imagining it like “carrying water” for someone, in that you’re pulling the official party line. But I don’t know what they’d think about “He resisted but was always careful to (tow) the line without stepping over it.”
    Currently, I am at war with “wary” vs “weary.” More and more I see people using the latter when they mean the former. What irritates me so is that I can’t always tell which they mean (“I’m really weary of such arguments.” So are you tired of them or cautious about engaging in them?), and I’m also not sure if when I use the one I mean, people will understand what I’m saying. I’m getting weary of having to clarify now every time I or someone else uses “weary.” At least “wary” seems to always be used correctly.
    Why do Americans mispronounce French words and phrases? Spite.

  17. Ridana says

    I forgot to ask -- can someone explain the two uses of the word “play” in the third paragraph of the quote? It reads fine without them, but I can’t parse it with them, in a way that makes sense to me. “word play” doesn’t seem to be the right meaning in context, and “after dinner play” is even worse (all I can think of is board games in the parlor).

  18. Mano Singham says


    Good catch! I looked up the link to the source and the word ‘play’ is not there in both those instances. Instead Merriam Webster has a dash which is really a hyperlink that plays a voice pronouncing the word. When I cut and pasted the text, the hyperlinks were replaced by the word ‘play’ but I did not notice that switch until you pointed it out. I have made a note in the post.

  19. machintelligence says

    Why do Americans mispronounce French words and phrases? Spite.
    I just says them as I sees them: Pas de deux — pass dee dukes. /snark
    Now lets start on “hoist by his own petard” or “hoist with his own petard” or “hoist on his own petard.”
    Granted that petard is not part of human anatomy.

  20. says

    Although I have lived in the US for over forty years, I have never heard anyone utter the word ‘pudding’ except in ads for an item known as Jello pudding.

    You should watch the (very adult oriented in its writing and humor) Harley Quinn cartoon. Just try season 1, episode 1. You might not like it, of course, the humor is a matter of taste (which I think you might like) and there is also cartoon violence that comes with cartoon gore (which I think you might not like, but reminds me of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons-within-the-cartoon of The Simpsons), but one thing is for sure -- you’ll hear a number of uses of the word “pudding” with an entirely different meaning.

  21. Silentbob says

    @1 Giliell

    I also use this trick to remember if the sandy place or the sugary treat gets more esses: Dessert gets two because you never say no to a second one.

    I remember one of my primary school teachers saying that “four” has a U, and “fourteen” has a U, but “forty” doesn’t have a U because it’s too old to have a U. Bizarre thing to teach kids, but on the other hand I stillremember it and I’ve never misspelled “forty” so I guess it was effective.:-)

    @5 Mano Singham

    This may be yet another case where popular usage replaces its original spelling.

    Another case is where people write “tow the line” when it originatedas “toe the line”.

    Another one is “sleight of hand” which often gets misspelled “slight”, even thought it doesn’t make any sense. Probably because nobody ever uses the word “sleight” (skill) anymore except in that one phrase!

  22. John Morales says


    Probably because nobody ever uses the word “sleight” (skill) anymore except in that one phrase!

    Um, you just did, thus refuting your own claim.

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