Spelling Tricky Words: Dessert vs. Desert

Tips and Mnemonic Devices to Remember the Correct Spelling

Dessert vs Desert
Left: Bill Diodato / Getty Images; Right: Brian Stablyk / Getty Images

Dessert, the delicious sweet course after a meal, is spelled with two S's. Desert, the dry, arid land, is spelled with one S. It's easy to understand the difference and remember the spelling by learning a few mnemonic devices and looking at the origins of the words.

Definitions

Dessert is the final course, usually sweet, of a meal.

Desert can be used as a noun or a verb. As a noun, desert refers to a dry, arid region. As a verb, it means to abandon.

Even if you try pronouncing the words for spelling (such as mentally pronouncing Wednesday Wed-NES-day), dessert and desert can be confusing. Common spelling rules would suggest that dessert is pronounced /dezert/ (with a short e sound) because the e is followed by two consonants. Desert would be pronounced /dezert/ (with a long e sound) because it is followed by only one consonant.

However, even the pronunciation keys for each word in the dictionary look essentially the same: /dəˈzərt/ (sweets eaten after a meal),  /dəˈzərt/ (to leave behind), /dezərt/ (wasteland).

How to Remember How to Spell Dessert and Desert

One of the best ways to remember how to spell tricky words is to use a mnemonic device. A mnemonic device is a memory tool that helps a person to remember larger bits of information—or tricky-to-spell words—with something easier to remember such as a phrase or rhyme. One example that many people are familiar with is Roy G. Biv for remembering the order of the color spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Try these mnemonics to help you remember how to spell dessert and desert:

  • Dessert is twice as nice as a desert.
  • Desserts spelled backward is stressed. (And maybe you eat dessert when you're stressed.)
  • Strawberry shortcake (two S’s) is for dessert. Sand (one "s")  is for desert.
  • It’s too dry in the desert for two S’s to grow.

Another way to remember how to spell a word is to investigate and understand its origins. This study of word origins is called etymology.

Etymology of the Word Dessert

Dessert has its roots in the French language. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word developed in the mid-16th century from the French words des, meaning the last course or removal, and servir, meaning to serve.

So, desservir meant to clear the table or to remove the previous courses. It came to refer to the dish, usually sweets, served after the main course had been removed from the table.

Understanding the origins of the word dessert, des + servir, helps the two S’s in the word make more sense.

Correct examples of the word dessert in a sentence:

  • The restaurant serves chocolate cake and apple pie for dessert.
  • Tiramisu is a traditional Italian dessert.

Incorrect examples:

  • The shipwrecked sailor was stranded on a desserted island for two years. (At least it was a “desserted” so he didn’t have to worry about going hungry!)
  • The streets are so desserted after midnight. (Sounds like a great time to go pick up a tasty treat since the streets are filled with sweets.)

Etymology of Desert

To make matters more confusing, there are two meanings and two pronunciations for the word desert. Both are derived from Latin.

The verb desert, meaning to leave or abandon, comes from the word desertus, which also means to leave or abandon. It is pronounced with a long e (as in he) and the emphasis is on the first syllable, /de’ zert/.

The noun desert, meaning an arid, sandy region, is derived from the Latin word desertum, meaning something left to waste or a wasteland. (Both desertus and desertum are different cases of the same word.) Desert, the dry wasteland, is pronounced with a short e (like the first sound in elephant) and the second syllable is stressed.

As with dessert, when you understand the origins of the word desert, the spelling makes sense because the Latin word from which desert is derived has only one S.

Examples of the verb desert in a sentence:

  • A soldier who deserts the army can get into serious trouble.
  • Please don’t desert me in my hour of need.

Examples of the noun desert in a sentence:

  • One of my favorite desert plants is the cactus.
  • The world’s largest subtropical desert is the Sahara, but Antarctica is considered a desert (polar), too, and is the world's largest!

Incorrect examples of desert:

  • She said, “Please don’t dessert me.” (Are you sure? Cake or pie would be nice.)
  • It was difficult to cross the dry, sandy dessert. (That must have been one poorly baked cake!)

Finally, have you ever heard the expression “just deserts”? Many people think it’s “just desserts,” which makes the phrase a bit curious since it means that someone got what they deserved. Did they deserve cake and ice cream?

No. The correct phrase is “just deserts,” from yet another, lesser-known meaning of the word desert. The word can also be a noun meaning a suitable reward or punishment.