Christine Lovatt

The words desert and dessert look similar, but they are very different in meaning.

Now and again, one of our crossword clues seems to hit a nerve with our puzzlers and we get a sack of mail (or a deluge of emails) claiming that a gremlin has been found. Sometimes we have made an error and we are happy to award gremlins to our eagle-eyed spotters.

But I would like to draw your attention to a recent case. A clue in a recent BIG Crossword magazine was ‘Comeuppance, just …’. How many of you thought the answer should be DESSERTS? Well, not so – the answer, believe it or not, is DESERTS (pronounced dizerts). It’s a common mistake to think that it’s connected with ‘desserts’, those treats we have after dinner. But it means ‘suitable reward or punishment’ and is related instead to ‘deserve’, (with one ‘s’) and comes from the Latin deservir ‘be worthy to have’ whereas ‘dessert’ comes from the Latin desservir ‘clear the table’, as it’s the last course.

The word has no connection with the sandy desert, except that they both come from Latin. The Latin word deserere, meaning ‘forsake’, led to the word desertus meaning ‘wilderness’ as being literally ‘a thing abandoned’. We have the verb ‘to desert’, meaning ‘to abandon’. Desert gradually came to mean the treeless, waterless region which we call a desert.

There was a time in the 18th century when it was spelled ‘desart’, which at least avoided confusion with the above meaning of ‘what you deserve’ or ‘payback’.

To add to the confusion of the spelling, the words Just Desserts can often be seen as a pun in restaurant menus as the heading for the dessert list.

Many thanks to all who wrote in. We love to hear your thoughts on our clues. May you always receive your just deserts!

Happy Puzzling!