Thursday, September 17, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Desert, Revisited

What was the very first word I ever looked at the etymology of? Desert, of all things. I have no idea why I picked that word, but knowing me, I was reading something and thinking of how annoying it was that words are spelled the same but mean something completely different. And how much more annoying it is when they’re pronounced different. Make up your mind, words!

Looking back at it isn’t too cringe-worthy, but it could definitely use some improvements. I didn’t even cite any sources! Although in my defense, that may have just been revenge for all the stupid papers I had to write in college. Frigging MLA formatting.

Anyway, let’s take another look at desert. It showed up as a noun first in the thirteenth century, meaning a barren wasteland, but also a wilderness—it even referred to woods at one point before meaning a place that’s empty of everything. By the mid thirteenth century, it had an adjective form, which we don’t really use much these days except when we say desert island. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the verb showed up, and it actually didn’t come from the noun. Although they did both come from the same place.

The noun desert comes from the Old French desert, same meaning, and Late Latin desertum, something abandoned. It’s from the classical Latin deserere, to leave or abandon (why to desert means what it does), and that’s where the verb desert comes from. It’s actually a mix of the prefix de- (undo) and serere, which somehow means things that are joined together or planted in a row. Yeah. Really. It’s from the Proto Indo European ser-, meaning to line up, which is in so many words, it’s going to have to be its own post. Maybe next week!

Fun fact: there is another form of desert that’s not related to the above. You know how people say someone got their “just deserts”? Yeah, that’s unrelated to the other desert. Actually, that word is more related to dessert than desert! That desert showed up in the fourteenth century, meaning deserving a certain treatment for a behavior. It’s from the Old French deserte, merit or recompense, from the verb deservir, to be worthy of, from the classical Latin deservire, to serve. And as it turns out, dessert, which showed up in the seventeenth century from the Middle French dessert, is from the classical Latin desservir, to clear the table. If it’s not obvious, deservir and desservir are from the same place, the root word servir, serve. Deservir has the prefix de- in front, meaning completely, while the des- in desservir comes from dis-, undo. Just deserts are completely deserved, and desserts are un-serving (because they’re the final thing you eat, it’s the end of a serving).



  1. I didn't realize just deserts was different from desserts. I learned something!

  2. I always thought it was just desserts, not deserts. I thought it meant you get the dessert you deserve, like chocolate mousse if you've been good or something gross like rice pudding if you weren't. You learn something new every day...

  3. I want to say something deep and meaningful about going out into the wilderness, but I think I used up all of my deepness on my post for tomorrow.
    Now I wish my post for tomorrow was just going to be a flower picture, because -that- would be amusing.

  4. I've always known the difference between the two.

  5. I was so sure that dessert wouldn't connect to this at all. So, of course I was wrong.


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