A Sweet Dessert Is My Just Desert

Desert and Dessert are words that should always trigger mental warnings.

Dessert is the sugary treat you eat after dinner. As some say, the extra “s” is for “sweet.” Those with a sweet tooth might also be interested to know that while Merriam-Webster lists a dessert fork and a dessert knife as two words, it closes up dessertspoon. Go figure.

The word desert is a bit more interesting. It is, of course, a hot, arid place. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, Arrakis is a desert planet, while in Frank Norris’s McTeague, the desert (specifically Death Valley) is the place in which the titular character ends up handcuffed to a corpse. The great novel also introduced me to steam beer, which I’ll choose over pie for dessert any day of the week.

As a verb, desert is used in the sense of “to abandon.” It might be understandable if you deserted your friends at the bar after one too many steam beers. (I’m joking. There’s no excuse for abandoning your friends at the bar.)

The following meaning of desert causes more than a bit of confusion. As a noun, desert can also be used to indicate a deserved reward. The expression, then, is just deserts, not just desserts.

The hell, you say!

I know, I know. On the face of it, just desserts makes so much sense. Of course your reward should be something sweet. But in this expression dessert is incorrect. I’d love to have stats on how many young editors have seen this written correctly and, with the best of intentions and an unshakable conviction, added the extra “s.”

It’s forgivable to miss an edit. It happens to the best of editors. But changing something that’s correct to something that isn’t simply can’t happen. It’s an editor’s greatest sin. Do no harm.


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