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The Word Guy: He who gets just deserts gets what he deserves

| Friday, June 21, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Question: I have always thought the phrase was “just desserts” to indicate getting one's comeuppance. But I so frequently see it in print as “just deserts.” So which is it, and where did the phrase come from?

— Jean Bayer, via email

Answer: The correct term is “just deserts.” The “deserts” in this phrase, though spelled like “deserts” (arid places) and pronounced like “desserts,” is not related to either word. This “deserts” is derived from the same root as “deserve” and means “consequences that someone deserves.”

Further compounding the confusion is that people inevitably make puns on the sound-alike words “deserts” and “desserts.” As the editor of a company magazine, for instance, I once ran a photo of an executive nicknamed “Papa” being bombarded with custard pies at a charity event. I couldn't resist the headline “Papa Gets His Just Desserts.”

It's worth noting that “just deserts” is most often used in a negative sense, referring to a punishment or comeuppance that a miscreant or villain deserves.

“Comeuppance,” by the way, was coined during a verbal craze of the mid-1800s when Americans were obsessed with creating colorful compound words. This frenzy produced terms such as “maker-upper,” “filler-inner” and “come-outer,” and explains why grizzled cowboys in Westerns always ask the barkeep for a little “picker-upper.”

First appearing in print in 1859, “comeuppance” is based on the notion that someone finally “comes up” against a negative consequence he deserves, in other words, gets his just deserts.

Q: Can you explain the differences among “caret,” “carat” and “karat”?

—Dick Wenner, West Hartford, Conn.

A: To make the three definitions of these “carrots” stick, I'll need a carrot and a stick.

First, the stick: A caret is a typographic mark used to indicate an insertion. A carat is a unit of weight for gemstones (“a 3-carat diamond”). A karat is a unit of fineness for gold (“a 24-karat gold bracelet”).

Now the carrot: Here are three handy mnemonics: “Careful editors use carets” (care, carets); “Caravans carry diamonds” (caravan, carat); and “Fine karate wins gold” (karate, karat).

One more little carrot: In researching this subject, I found this 1-carat gem: “Caret” comes not, as I had always assumed, from its resemblance to a carrot, but from the Latin verb “carere” (to lack, be without).

Word Guy gets his comeuppance!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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