Desert vs dessert?

The noun dessert is a sweet or savory delicacy that we serve after a meal. The word desert generally describes a dry, barren landscape or the act of abandonment. 

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What is the difference between desert and dessert?

When people read the word “desert,” the first image that typically comes to mind is a vast, bleak, and unbearably hot landscape. If so, the mental image represents a desert biome (noun), which are areas of land that are seemingly barren, dry, and covered with sand, gravel, or stone. 

But outside of Earthly climates, the word desert contains other meanings, as well:

  • Deserts (plural noun): one’s worthiness of a punishment or reward. 
  • Desert (verb): To abandon, forsake, or withdraw from one’s responsibilities. 

English speakers often confuse desert with dessert, a separate noun that means ‘sweet treat’ or the ‘last course of a meal.’ Depending on location, we associate dessert with delicacies such as ice cream, candy, pudding, sweetmeats, pie, fruit–– you name it. If it’s served as the last course after a large meal, it’s called dessert

Confusing homophones: dessert vs. desert

The words “desert” and “dessert” have very similar spellings and pronunciations, so it’s easy to see why writers mix them up. Phonetically speaking, the terms “deserts” (as in reward/punishment), “desert” (food), and “desert” (to abandon) use the same syllable structure of ‘di-’zerts,’ while “desert” (biome) uses ‘ˈde-zərt.’ 

The subtle differences between each “desert” or “dessert” might appear insignificant, but they affect how we pronounce each word. To illustrate, let’s take a look at their individual pronunciations: 

Deserts, pl n. (consequences):

Phonetic pronunciation:  \ di-ˈzərts  \
Sounds like: “de-zerts” or “de-serts” 
*stress on the second syllable 

Dessert, n. (sweet meal):

Phonetic pronunciation: \ di-ˈzərt \
Sounds like: “da-zert” or “des-sert” 
*stress on the second syllable 

Desert, v. (to abandon):

Phonetic pronunciation:  \ di-ˈzərt \
Sounds like: “da-zert” or “de-sert” 
*stress on the second syllable 

Desert, n. (desert biome):

Phonetic pronunciation:  \ ˈde-zərt \
Sounds like: “de-zert” or “dez-ert” 
*stress on the first syllable 

At the end of the day, the best way to understand the pronunciation of desert vs. dessert is to learn through sound. We recommend checking out Tarle Speech and Language Services’ tutorial on “How to Pronounce Desert, Desert, Dessert,” or TEFL and TESOL Courses’ video of “Desert vs. Dessert.” 

How to remember desert vs. dessert?

The easiest way to memorize the difference between desert and dessert is through mnemonics: 

  • The letter s appears in the word dessert twice: “ss” = “You want ‘second servings” of the ‘sweet stuff.’”
  • The letter s appears in the word desert once: “s” = “sandy,” “scorching,” “sunshine,” or “singular as in ‘isolated.’  

What does the word dessert mean?

The noun desert implies a sweet course that takes place after a large meal, such as lunch or dinner. Most people associate dessert with ice cream, pastries, fruit, or candy, but British English speakers may use “dessert” to mean an additional course served afterward. In this case, a dessert consists of sweetmeats, fruit, or nuts. 

Sentence examples:

“I ate strawberry shortcake for dessert.” 
“Where is the dessert menu?” 
“We eat dessert at the end of a meal.” 

Synonyms

Afters, cake, candy, confection, cookie, delicacy, delectable, fruit, goody, junket, last course, pie, pudding, sweet, sweetmeat, sweet dish, tart, treat. 

What does the word desert mean

The word desert consists of four definitions as a noun, adjective, and verb: 

Desert, n.: desert biome

We use the noun desert for barren, dry, and uninhabited regions. Arid deserts are often hot during the day and cold at night, but deserts can also be cold, semi-arid, or coastal. The main feature of all deserts is that they are dry for most of the year and contain harsh living conditions compared to other Earthly climates. 

Some of the largest deserts on Earth include:

  • Antarctic Desert (Antarctica)
  • Sahara Desert (Northern Africa) 
  • Kalahari Desert (Southern Africa) 
  • Gobi Desert (Eastern Asia)
  • Patagonian Desert (Argentina)

The archaic meaning of the word desert implies ‘a wild and uninhabited region’ or an ‘empty, forsaken place.’ But in a metaphorical sense, we can use the noun desert to describe a ‘wasteland’ or a place or situation that is dull or boring. A “cultural desert,” for example, is an “uninteresting” and “underproductive” period or area. 

Sentence examples:

“The Sonoran Desert is home to the saguaro cactus.” 
“Psoriasis can make your skin dry and cracked like a desert.”
“Hope is an oasis in the desert of despair.” 

Synonyms:

Badland, barren, brush, bush, desolation, dust bowl, heath, no-man’s-land, open, wasteland.

Antonyms:

Forest. 

Desert, adj.: wasteland

The adjective desert relates the qualities of a desert biome to a person, place, or thing. For instance, if an area is barren, dusty, solitary, or dismal, one might say, “It’s a desert landscape.” 

Sentence examples:

“We live in a desert climate.” 
“The designer is going for a desert aesthetic.” 

Synonyms:

Arid, barren, bleak, dehydrated, desolate, doughty, dried-up, dry, lifeless, parched, rainless, sunbaked, thirsty, waterless. 

Antonyms:

Arable, fertile, fruitful, green, lush, luxuriant, productive, rich, verdant. 

Desert, n.: ‘one’s just deserts’

The noun desert (commonly as deserts) describes one who is ‘deserving of a reward or punishment,’ or the quality of such. 

As you might have guessed, the noun deserts is related to the verb ‘deserve,’ which is the act of earning a reward or punishment. For instance, a person who “gets their just deserts” is one that ‘got what they deserve’ (and especially in the form of punishment).  

Sentence examples:

“I loathe the ruinous deserts of self-indulgence.” 
“The attorney ensured the perpetrator received their just deserts.” 

Synonyms:

Castigation, chastisement, comeuppance, correction, discipline, nemesis, penalty, punishment, reprisal, retaliation, retribution, revenge, wrath, vengeance. 

Antonyms:

Acquittal, amnesty, exculpation, exemption, exoneration, forgiveness, indemnity, immunity, pardon, parole, vindication. 

Desert, v..: to abandon or withdrawl

The verb desert (also, deserted, deserting, or deserts) means ‘to abandon,’ ‘forsake,’ or ‘withdrawal’ in a disloyal manner or leave without the intention of coming back. What makes the word desert slightly different from ‘abandon’ or ‘forsake’ is that desert implies that a victim is not left helpless or in danger. 

The verb desert also implies leaving a place empty or failing someone in times of need. For instance, the phrase “leaving in the lurch” equates to ‘deserting a friend in trouble.’ In the same token, the word desert is especially relevant to the military, where a “deserter” is a soldier that illegally flees their post without permission or notice. 

Sentence examples:

“Children are deserting their playgrounds in favor of video game consoles.”
“Some animals desert their children.” 
“The military lawyer promised to prosecute anyone who deserted their military duties.” 

Synonyms:

Abandon, abdicate, abjure, apostatize, defect from, disown, ditch, forsake, rat-out, quit, reject, renounce, repudiate, spurn, strand, withdrawal. 

Antonyms:

Adhere, cherish, cling, cultivate, foster, harbor, keep, possess, reclaim, reserve, retain, stick to/with. 

Etymology of desert, dessert, and ‘one’s just deserts

The noun desert (biome), adjective desert (empty), and verb desert (abandon) all stem from the same Latin word: deserere (‘to desert’ or ‘leave, forsake’). However, the verb did not enter the English Language until 1603, where its previous meaning stems from French déserter and Late Latin dēsertāre

The noun form of desert is technically older than the verb, as it entered the English vocabulary in the 13th century from Anglo-French and Late Latin desertum (‘to leave for waste’). As pointed out by the Online Etymology Dictionary, Late Latin’s desertum also gave rise to Italian destertus or plural deserta, where the former means “waterless, treeless region of considerable extent.” 

The noun “deserts” of “one’s just deserts” also appeared in Middle English, but through Old French deserte (the past participle of deservir) ‘to deserve’ and later, ‘to serve well’). To make matters more confusing, the 16th-century noun dessert (‘sweet course’) is related to ‘just desserts,’ as it stems from the Old French word desservir (‘to clear the table’). 

FAQ: Related to desert vs. dessert

What do you call words that have the same spelling and pronunciation?

We call words like desert and dessert homophones because they have similar spellings and pronunciations, but different meanings. The Word Counter has covered similar tricky words, such as “lead vs. lead” or “principal vs. principle.” 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between commonly confused words like desert and dessert with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. Choose the right word for the following definition: “Arid land.”
    a. Desserts, plural noun.
    b. Deserts, plural noun.
    c. Desert, noun. 
    d. Desert, verb.
  2. Choose the right word for the following definition: “Sweet, final course.”
    a. Dessert, noun.
    b. Desert, noun.
    c. Deserts, plural noun.
    d. Dessert, adjective. 
  3. Which is not a form of dessert? 
    a. Ice cream
    b. Strawberry shortcake
    c. Sweetmeat
    d. None of the above.
  4. Which of the following words does not stem from Latin deserere?
    a. Desert, noun.
    b. Dessert, noun.
    c. Desert, adj. 
    d. Desert, verb.
  5. Of all the definitions of desert, which form is closest related to “dessert”?
    a. Desert, noun.
    b. Deserts, plural noun. 
    c. Desert, verb.
    d. Desert, adj. 

Answers

  1. C
  2. A
  3. D
  4. B
  5. B

Sources

  1. Desert.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  2. Desert.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  3. Desert.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  4. Deserts.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  5. Desert Biome.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 2020. 
  6. Dessert.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  7. Dessert.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  8. Dessert.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  9. Dessert.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  10. Harper, Douglas. “Desert, n.1.Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020.