What's the difference between dessert and desert? How do we know which one to use?
Let's find out with a little help from our friends in Star Trek:TOS, Sentinel and SG1.
'Dessert' is a simple word to define; it derives from the Old French word desservir, meaning 'to clear the table', and any dictionary will tell you that it is a (usually) sweet dish served at the end of a meal: fruit, ice cream, custard, some sort of pastry, sponge or dumpling. In the UK and some other countries, dessert is also known as pudding; in America, pudding is just one kind of dessert.
"What's for dessert?" Blair asked as he finished his spaghetti.
"Apple crumble and custard," Jim replied.
So when Spock is making his laborious way across the Vulcan dessert, the reader can't help but get a mental picture of him plodding along up to the ankles in custard until he trips on a piece of apple and ends up flat on his face. Not the picture the writer is trying to convey! Spock, of course, should be trudging across the desert.
'Desert' is a word with more than one meaning; and to add to the potential confusion, two of these are pronounced the same way as 'dessert', with the stress on the second syllable. When the stress is on the first syllable, it usually refers to a dry, often sandy region with little rainfall, extreme temperatures, and sparse vegetation. We tend to think of deserts as hot (e.g. Sahara Desert), but there are also cold deserts (like Antarctica).
While he was working in the Egyptian desert, Daniel began to formulate the theory that the pyramids were built by aliens.
When O'Neill and Carter were caught in a stargate malfunction, they ended up in a snow-covered desert world that turned out to be the Antarctic.
There were several alternative spellings in use in the past; in (and before) the eighteenth century, a commonly accepted spelling was 'desart'. For example, in 1635, Sir T Herbert wrote of 'Barren Montaynes, Sand and salty Desarts', while in 1725 Pope wrote 'To roam the howling desart of the Main' and in 1768 Boswell wrote 'Where they make a desart, they call it peace'. (OED, complete edition) By the early 1800s, however, 'desert' seems to have become the default spelling.
Another meaning for 'desert' is 'Something that is deserved or merited, especially a punishment', although it can also be used for a well-earned reward. This is most often used in the plural.
Blair considered that Alex Barnes received her just deserts when she got greedy, went into the grotto for a second time, and overloaded her sentinel senses.
It can also mean 'to leave empty or alone; abandon; quit without permission'.
Because he considered Apophis to be a false god, Teal'c chose to desert the first chance he got.
Although the building seemed to have been deserted, Jim could hear voices. He was sure that there were at least three people inside it.
When 'desert' is used as an adjective, the stress is on the first syllable, even when the meaning is 'left empty'.
"I've never been interested in visiting desert islands," Blair said, "because nobody lives there. That's actually how they got the name... " He broke off, realizing that Jim wasn't really interested.
So how can we remember when to use 'dessert' and when to use 'desert'?
There are two ways. If you think of 'dessert' (double consonant) as meaning 'pudding', which also has a double consonant, it should help you to remember the difference. You can also remember that when you have dessert you want more, so you double the s!