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Language Arts

Desert vs Dessert

In this article "desert" vs. "dessert" the differences between the two words and the multiple meanings that can be associated with each are explained. Read this article to understand more about "desert" vs. "dessert."

The title of this article should actually be “Desert vs Desert vs Desert vs Dessert,” because there are three separate homographic words that are all spelled d-e-s-e-r-t. But that’s not where we’re going to start - because this is a rare opportunity to do so - we’re going to begin with dessert.


In US English, the noun dessert refers to the last part of a meal, a sweet course or dish that may include fruit or a prepared sweet food such as pastry, cookies, pudding, or ice cream, and sometimes served with what is referred to as “desert wine,” such as Sauterne. In British English, this course is often referred to generically as afters or pudding, or pud for short, whether or not it includes the cooked flour or grain confection that in the US is referred to as pudding.

In British English, dessert refers to something different - a course consisting of fresh fruit, nuts, or candy or candied fruit served after the course that in the US would be called dessert. Here are examples:

Thanks, but I don’t need seconds: I’m saving room for dessert.

What’s for dessert?

In any case, dessert comes from the Old French word desservir meaning “to clear the table.” It is pronounced /dih ZUHRT/.


  • The first word desert that we’ll discuss can be a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it can refer generically to a place that is barren and desolate, empty and devoid of vegetation and fauna or figuratively to a place that is forsaken or a wasteland in terms of thought, culture, or beauty.

In geographical and ecological terms, it refers more specifically to an area with a specified (and negligible) amount of average annual precipitation (in the range of less than 10 inches or 250 mm. per year). Deserts can be hot or cold, with cold weather deserts often being referred to as tundra or ice cap depending on temperature. Deserts make up about a third of the world’s surface.

As an adjective, desert means either “relating to or coming from a desert” or “barren or desolate.”

Here are examples:


Yes, I did say I wanted to get away from the noise of the big city, but this place is a cultural desert.

For my Ph.D. research, I will be analyzing the montane deserts in and around Kashmir and comparing and contrasting them.


I’m not sure of its name, but that mammal is definitely a desert rodent.

In stories, pirate treasure is often buried on desert islands.

Desert comes from the neuter past participle of the Latin deserere meaning “to abandon” - so an area that has been abandoned. Though it has the same ultimate root as the third word desert, it is not pronounced identically. You say this word /DEHZ uhrt/, so this desert is a homograph with the other two words desert.

  • The second word desert is only a noun. It means “what is deserved or merited,” and in this sense is often used in the phrase “just deserts.” It can also refer to the quality or state or deserving a reward or a punishment. Here is an example:

"Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,/To do more for me than mine own desert," Sonnet 72 William Shakespeare

This word desert comes through Old French from the Vulgar Latin deservire, meaning “to merit through service,” which in Latin had meant “to be devoted to the service of.” One’s deserts were the results of one’s service. It is pronounced /dih ZUHRT/, and is thus a homophone of dessert.

  • The third word desert is a transitive verb (one that takes an object) as well as an intransitive verb (one that doesn’t require an object). As a transitive verb it means to abandon or with draw from a duty or responsibility. As an intransitive verb, it refers in particular to absence from military duty without permission or intention to return, what is know as being AWOL. Here are examples:

Transitive: The witness said that her father had deserted the family when she was three.

Intransitive: The army spokesman said that it is still an open question whether Sergeant Shunpike deserted or whether something beyond her control may have prevented her scheduled return from leave.

This word desert comes from the French deserter which came from a Late Latin form deserere which mean to abandon - originating from de-" + serere. Serere means “to join” and in this case de-" means “to do the opposite of. It is pronounced /dih ZUHRT/, and is therefore a homophone of dessert and a homonym of the second word desert.