Today I found out that the idiom used for the notion of someone “getting what’s coming to them”, whether good or bad, is actually “just deserts”, not “just desserts”.
The misconception primarily stems from the fact that most people are unfamiliar with the word ‘desert’ (pronounced dizert), which more or less means the same thing as the word ‘deserve’. Instead, when they see the word ‘desert’, they think only of the word meaning something to the effect of ‘dry sandy wasteland’, which is pronounced ‘dezert’.
In fact, these two words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, have their origins in two different Latin words. The word ‘desert’, as in hot sandy wasteland, comes from the Latin word deserere, meaning to forsake. The word ‘desert’ as in “to get what’s coming to you”, comes from the Latin word deservire, which is also where we got the word “deserve” from.
Thus, the pronunciation of “just desert” as “just dizert’ starts to make more sense when considering the origin of this particular form of ‘desert’, being the same as the origin for the word as “deserve”. Likewise, the idiom “just desert” actually now makes complete sense, unlike “just desserts” which makes no sense whatsoever in the context that this particular idiom is usually used.
- The word ‘desert’, as in “to get what is coming to you”, has been used in English since around the 13th century. This word, however, has fallen out of common usage and now, outside of the idiom “just desert”, is almost never used.
- The earliest reference for the idiom “just deserts” was around the 16th century.
- This type of spelling error based on a mishearing of a word or misunderstanding of its context is commonly called an eggcorn.
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