A “Just Desert” is Not a Land of Righteous Sand, and a “Just Dessert” is a Rightly Portioned Cake with Ice Cream

Here’s a little-known trivia about the English language. I was reading a book on Political Philosophy when I encountered this:


The first thing that went through my head was: What does that mean?

For the rest of the chapter, the author continued to use the word, “desert,” but in ways that were so unusual to me. How is a desert (the one with sand) just in any sense?!

I was scratching my head, constantly trying to figure out what he meant. I had to re-read the section repeatedly, until it occurred to me that perhaps he meant: “dessert”?

Well, unfortunately, I wasn’t happy with the realisation because this unusual usage of “desert” made it so difficult for me to figure out what was going on with the chapter. I complained about this to a few friends. How is it possible that the author could have made such a consistent typo throughout the chapter? How did the editor not spot it?

Yet, isn’t it odd that if it were a consistent typo, the author or editor would have spotted and corrected it?

One of my friends became curious about this incident. He went out to investigate (on Google, of course… Keyboard Warriors, charge!!!), and we came to a very VERY surprising discovery: It’s not a mistake!

If you look at the dictionary for the definition of “desert,” one of the definitions you’ll find is this:

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

So actually, there isn’t such a thing as “just desserts,” unless you are talking specifically about portioning out the right size of cake and ice cream. It should really be “just deserts”!

But I guess so many of us have been using “just desserts” that it has now become the acceptable form in the English language.

Also, “desert” in “just desert” is pronounced differently from the sand type of “desert.”  It sounds like “dessert”, but instead of saying, “dis-seeeert” as you would for cakes and ice-cream, you pronounce it as: “dis-sert” (a very short ‘e’ sound on the second syllable).

So there you go. I learnt something new from this, have you? :)

One’s Words Should be Substantial

言之有物 (yan zhi you wu). One’s words should be substantial.

This applies to both writing and speech. This was something the professor for the History of Chinese Philosophy taught us on our first lesson.

I must admit that I am indeed very guilty of just blabbering lots of nonsense, especially when I talk. But I think there is great wisdom in the above phrase.

In my first semester, one professor mentioned that in the digital age, we take our words for granted. Very little thought goes into the sentences that we construct thanks to the invention of the backspace key. We write something, we don’t like it, we delete the character(s) or word(s), and we start again: perhaps until we are satisfied.

Without much thought spent on the idea that we wish to convey in the sentence, the words have been expressed. This is very much different from the way people used to write in the past. They thought carefully and deeply about the subject and had great clarity of mind such that a page (and even more) could be written or typed out with no error whatsoever.

Even in speech, we are often in a hurry to say something. Before seriously pondering on what it really means, the implications, validity of the statement, etc., words flood out of our mouths like the Merlion. And more often than not, we end up with regrets over what had been said.

There is a proverb that I heard in the past that goes along the lines of: The man of wisdom is one who speaks few words. In the sense that the wise man knows when and what exactly to say, while the fool is one who blabbers away.

言之有物. What an important lesson to learn!