Commonly Confused Words: Desert vs. Dessert

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What does each word mean?

The word desert has two meanings. It is defined by the Spellzone dictionary as either a noun which describes ‘arid land with little or no vegetation’, or a verb which describes the act of leaving someone ‘who needs or counts on you’ ‘in the lurch’ or ‘behind’.

Here is desert used in some example sentences:

  • The famous saguaro cactus only grows in the wild in the Sonoran desert.
  • My friends and I are banned from going into the deserted old house at the edge of town.
  • He deserted his wife and children.

Dessert refers to ‘a dish served as the last course of a meal’.

Here is dessert used in some example sentences:

  • I’m thinking about having ice cream for dessert.
  • Is dessert included in the restaurant’s meal deal?
  • I’m stuffed - I think I’ll skip dessert.

Where does each word come from?

Desert, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, started being used to refer to a ‘wasteland’ in the early thirteenth century, and in Old French the word means ‘desert, wilderness, wasteland; destruction, ruin’. It comes from the Late Latin ‘desertum’ which literally means ‘thing abandoned’.

Desert, in the sense of abandoning one’s duty, is late fourteenth century and comes from the Old French ‘deserter’ which means ‘leave’. ‘Deserter’ in turn comes from the Late Latin ‘desertare’, the frequentative form of ‘deserere’ which means ‘to abandon, to leave, forsake, give up, leave in the lurch’. The first recorded use of desert in its military sense is from the 1640s.

Dessert is a Middle French word (c.1600) which means ‘last course’ or, literally, ‘removal of what has been served’. It comes from ‘desservir’ which means to ‘clear the table’. The prefix ‘des-’ means to ‘remove, undo’ and ‘sevir’ means ‘to serve’, so combined ‘desservir’ literally means ‘un-serve’.

Are there any tricks to help remember the difference between these words?

The tricky part when remembering whether you need to use desert or dessert is working out how many Ss you require. Try saying some of the following sentences to yourself and see if any of them help trigger your memory:

  • Desserts, like ice cream, are usually sweet and sugary, so the word needs two Ss.” (Variations of this sentence include “I like my desserts super sweet.” or “My favourite dessert is strawberry shortcake.”)
  • To spell ‘desert’, you need to desert one of the Ss.” - “Like the word ‘Sahara’, the word ‘desert’ only had one S in it.

Happy Spelling, everyone!

17 Feb 2014
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One of the students has put in a huge amount of effort in completing Spellzone at least 3 times a week since his arrival with us in January. Looking at his scores after the latest GL testing, his standardised score has risen from 99 to 131. This is a truly phenomenal result. I just wanted to share the best result I have ever seen.

Terrie Penrose-Toms, Casterton College