This popular, and rather vengeful phrase refers to someone who is getting exactly what they deserve. Usually in this context, what’s deserved is not something sweet at all. But this phrase is still often confusing.
Is the key word here deserts, which is the plural of an arid, sandy environment, or is it desserts, sweet treats that someone may, or may not, deserve? Let’s break it down.
In the late 1200s, deserts meant something deserved that was unpleasant. The word is older than dessert, or the pastry we get at the end of a meal, which came into English use around 1600. We can probably remember many times in our childhood when we were told we deserved our desserts only if we ate our vegetables. But think about it. Does anyone really deserve a dessert? No, because a dessert is a delicious, sweet treat. A bonus. It’s also definitely not a punishment.
When used centuries ago, desert typically appeared in singular form and without the just. Since then, we’ve expanded the phrase to stress the punishment reference - just deserts. This modernized term, meaning a fitting punishment, made its first appearance in the early 1500s.
Deserved is the primary thought here. In fact, the words deserved and desert come from desevir, which is French for “to deserve.” When we use the full phrase, just deserts, as a reference to a morally or lawfully imposed consequence, we emphasize the second syllable, dez-erts.
Have you been thinking the wrong word all this time, saying, “Sounds like she got her just desserts?” Don’t be too hard on yourself. Likely, you’ve been pronouncing it correctly. But now you know which desserts you believe you deserve and which deserts you don’t.