This popular, 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 confusing — is it "just desserts" or "just deserts"?
History of the Phrase "Just Deserts"
That single "s" makes a big difference. Is the key word here "deserts," which is the plural of an arid, sandy environment, or is it "desserts," sweet treats served after a meal? Surprise! It's neither.
"Desert" is a homonym, meaning it has two or more meanings with the same spelling. "To desert" means to abandon or leave, but there's another historical definition that isn't really used anymore, except in the phrase "just deserts."
In the late 1200s, "deserts" meant something unpleasant was deserved. The word is older than "dessert," or the sugary dish 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. 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 (as in justice) deserts. This updated phrase, meaning a fitting punishment, made its first appearance in the early 1500s.
The Correct Usage
"Deserve" is the primary intention here. In fact, the words "deserve" 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. But now you know which desserts you believe you deserve and which deserts you don’t.