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What does "Just Deserts" Mean?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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The expression just desserts is a common misspelling of the actual idiom just deserts, which simply means to receive what one deserves. It is one of the more commonly misspelled idiomatic expressions, because it uses an archaic word most people are no longer familiar with. This type of spelling error based on a mishearing of a word, or misunderstanding of its context, is often referred to as an eggcorn.

The expression just deserts is pronounced just desserts, as though using the English word for a sweet after-dinner course, "dessert." Most people, when they see the word "desert," pronounce it differently, as though it is a large arid area of land, complete with sand dunes or palm trees. This is an understandable confusion, as the alternate meaning and the accompanying pronunciation as used in this expression has not been widely used in over a hundred years.

There are two words to consider here. The first is the word "desert," as in, "Lawrence of Arabia spent many years traveling the desert," with the meaning "arid wasteland." This word comes from the same root as the word "desert," as in, "The soldier deserted his company," with the meaning "to abandon." The common root here is the Latin word deserere, meaning to forsake, which made its way through French and Middle English. The secondary meaning of the word, however, with a pronunciation similar to "dessert" comes from an entirely different root. This use, as in, "He got what was coming to him — his just deserts," comes from the Latin deservire through the French. This sense of the term is analogous to the word "deserve," which originates from the same root. The pronunciation makes much more sense when the word "deserve" is considered.

It should be noted that the use of desert in the sense of to deserve has been in English since the mid-13th century. In fact, the use of the expression is noted as early as the end of the 16th century, in the line, “Upon a pillory, that all the world may see: A just desert for such impiety.”

Many people, because of the confusion stemming from the pronunciation, have come up with their own folk etymologies and meanings for this phrase. The most common of these false origins is that just desserts refers to the reward you get at the end of your meal — your dessert — and by extension can be used metaphorically for any sort of reward at the end of a job well done. While this is an admirable attempt at explaining the meaning, the truth is much simpler: it's about getting exactly what one deserves.

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Discussion Comments
By Dovebelle — On Aug 19, 2015

Funny, I always thought it was "just desserts" too (I had never seen it in print). That meant, essentially, "just rewards," or, you get what you deserve. So, if someone was bad, his getting his "just desserts" meant he would get whatever reward was just, i.e. no reward at all.

By anon352542 — On Oct 23, 2013

This is a stupid "rule." It's pronounced like "desserts," and it makes more intuitive sense, so regardless of the etymology, I'm going with "desserts," so-called rules be damned.

By anon130996 — On Nov 30, 2010

Just remember two scoops, double s for dessert. --lolita

By anon118804 — On Oct 15, 2010

Why is it a cliche?

By anon106755 — On Aug 27, 2010

Thanks for clearing this up for me. I first noticed this spelling in one of my criminal justice college classes online. I thought it was a mistake and couldn't understand how it was misspelled so many times and not corrected. I now see that I was mistaken. I would make it my personal mission from here on out to spread this news whenever it comes up in conversation.

By anon21019 — On Nov 08, 2008

just desert = divine justice?

By Brodie — On Jul 24, 2008

Good stuff on "just deserts." You might have added that the current confusion seems to stem from the Just Desserts chain, which presumably chose its title as a pun on "just deserts" (when the phrase was perhaps more fashionable) and wound up consigning the original to oblivion. I find that many (educated) people have no idea that "just deserts" even exists, let alone as a quondam cliche. Even The New Yorker got it wrong—-and didn't dare publish the smugly triumphant squib I dispatched.

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