« A Host Of Angels | Main | In Loving Memory Of Joseph Tracer »

The Scrivener: Just Deserts

How fortunate we are to have the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and even Isabella Beeton to add a little poetry to our exploration of ordinary everyday words, declares ace wordsmith Brian Barratt.

Can we ever forget Mr Micawber, the well-meaning but permanently impecunious gentleman who came into David Copperfield's life? Mrs Micawber very strongly declared her faith in him:

'I never will desert Mr Micawber. No!' cried Mrs Micawber, more affected than before, 'I never will do it! It's of no use asking me!'

...'Mr Micawber has his faults. I do not deny that he is improvident. I do not deny that he has kept me in the dark as to his resources and his liabilities both,' she went on, looking at the wall; 'but I never will desert Mr Micawber!'

But earlier in the story, Charles Dickens used 'desert' with a quite different meaning:

Mr Creakle's part of the house was a good deal more comfortable than ours, and he had a snug bit of garden that looked pleasant after the dusty playground, which was such a desert in miniature, that I thought no one but a camel, or a dromedary, could have felt at home in it.

Isn't it confusing? If you say desert like di-ZURT, it is a verb meaning to leave something or someone behind. If you say it more or less like de-zut it is a noun meaning an area of land that has little or no vegetation. This is an example of homonyms, words with the same spelling but different meanings.

To add to the confusion, we also have dessert, the usually sweet dish served at the end of a meal. It is said the same way as desert meaning to leaving something behind, and so those words are homophones because they sound the same.
Meaning just reward or punishment, desert appeared in print in English before 1300. It came from Old French words which came from Latin deservire, to serve well. It is related to deserve. It was used in the plural as ‘good deserts’ by Chaucer in about 1374. In Middle English it was printed as goode decertes.

Shakespeare used the plural form over 20 times in his plays, so it was probably a common saying. In 'The Merchant of Venice', for example, we find:

Did I deserve no more than a fool's head?
Is that my prize? are my deserts no better?
In Sonnet 17, in praise of a fair young man, he wrote:
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.

In the sense of a barren region or wasteland, it appeared in print around 1225. This, too, was borrowed from Old French terms. The Latin origin in this case was deserteum, abandoned, left waste. You can sense from this that both meanings of desert can be traced further back to a common origin.
Dessert comes from entirely different origins which related to serving a meal. It first appeared in print in about 1600, meaning a course of fruit or sweetmeats after a meal. It was adapted from the French verb desservoir, to clear the table. In other words, dessert consists of the sweet items eaten after the main meal has been cleared away.

The indefatigable Mrs Beeton, who borrowed such a huge amount of information to include in her Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861), had quite a lot to say about desserts. Try this for taste:

The dessert certainly repays, in its general effect, the expenditure upon it of much pains; and it may be said, that if there be any poetry at all in meals, or the process of feeding, there is poetry in the dessert, the materials for which should be selected with taste, and, of course, must depend, in a great measure, upon the season.

How fortunate we are to have the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and even Isabella Beeton to add a little poetry to our exploration of ordinary everyday words.

© Copyright 2004, 2007, 2011 Brian Barratt


To sample more of Brian's tasty columns please click on

And do visit his well-stocked Web site


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.