I Just Learned What 'Just Deserts' Really Means, And It's Got Nothing To Do With Deserts OR Desserts

You learn something mind-blowing every day, I guess.
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I don’t really know what I originally thought “just deserts” meant, except that I was convinced it was “just desserts.”

Maybe I thought “getting your just desserts [sic]” meant enjoying the sweetness of karma after enduring the banal main course of suffering. But to be honest, I didn’t think about it too much.

Luckily, people far smarter than me have. And it turns out that the “deserts” in “just deserts” has nothing to do with either arid sandscapes or Knickerbocker glories.

What does “just deserts” mean, then?

As none other than Susie Dent pointed out on X, the now mostly defunct word used to basically mean “deserved.”

“Etymology of the day: the ‘desert’ in ‘just deserts’ (not ‘just desserts’) is an old past tense of the French ‘deservir’, to ‘deserve’. Someone’s just deserts are their ‘comeuppance’, which rests on the idea of ‘coming up’ before a judge,” the Countdown legend posted in 2023.

This use of the word shares a root with “dessert” (deservir, as Susie Dent pointed out) but not with the sandy “desert,” which came from the Latin dēserta (meaning ‘unfrequented places, wilderness’), per Merriam-Webster.

However, “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.”

The phrase is old

Dictionary.com says the earliest known use of the phrase is from the 1500s.

Merriam-Webster shared some examples ― Robert Crowley, for instance, wrote: “I haue bene yonge and am nowe olde, yet the eies in myne heade:
Dyd never se the juste deserte, nor hys seede begge theyr breade” in the The Psalter if David in 1549.

Meanwhile, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera wrote in The decades of the newe world in 1555, “Unto kynges and princes we gyue due obeysaunce, by whose gouernaunce and furtheraunce they haue bin ayded, to perfurme theyr attemp|tes. we commende bothe, and for theyr iust desertes worthely extoll them.“

So there we have it ― “just deserts” is said like “desserts” but written like “deserts,” means neither of the modern definitions, and only shares a root with one. It’s also older than the Taj Mahal.

Ah, English...