Monday 9 November 2009

Just deserts

An email in which my friend described the delicious praline he had enjoyed for desert reminded me of how commonly these two words - desert and dessert - are confused, most frequently in the phrase "just deserts" (and it is "deserts", not "desserts", despite what Dogberry thinks).

It is remarkable how often people get this wrong. Over the last year, there have been 90 references in British newspapers to "just deserts" but 53 to "just desserts". Stripping out the inevitable puns in restaurant reviews, recipe pages, and an intriguing report about a local council which insisted that Spotted Dick be renamed Spotted Richard, we are still left with more than 20 instances of incorrect usage.

This does not seem to be a simple case of misspelling, rather a widespread assumption that the phrase is some sort of food metaphor, like "revenge is a dish best served cold", or "taste of one's own medicine" (I know, medicine isn't food, precisely, but you get the picture). This is compounded by the confusing fact that "desert" is in this case pronounced like "dessert" and not like the sandy sort of desert.

In fact, the "desert" in "just deserts" has nothing to do with sand or pudding, but comes from the Old French deservir and means something which is deserved, "a due reward or recompense".

In England, at least, the word "dessert" also raises questions of class. There is a lingering sense that "pudding" is somehow socially preferable, which I think may be something to do with Nancy Mitford.

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