To understand how the term dessert came about, we first have to be clear on what a dessert is and is not.
First, a dessert is not just another word for a sweet food. For example, if you eat a candy bar as a snack in the middle of the day, this is not a dessert. Dessert is the last part of a meal, and, it is usually sweet.
Our English word dessert comes from a French word word meaning “to remove what has been served” or de-serve: desservir.
Desservir derived from a Latin word for slave, servus.
From servus, came the Latin word servire, meaning “to serve.” This word entered French as servir and then was combined with the negating suffix des- to mean “un-serve.” This basically meant to remove what had been served. This word which referred to components of the meal and everything else on the table had been cleared away when the meal was finished evolved into a word that referred to the what was eaten after this occurred.
This word was used in France as early as 1539 to refer to what you ate after the main meal had been cleared away from the table. According to Dan Jurafsky, author of The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, these were items such as spiced hippacras wine, fresh or dried fruit, fruit comfits or dragees, nuts covered with a hard candy shell (like Jordan Almonds or M&M’s).
There is no connection between the word dessert and the word desert meaning an arid place. Desert came from a Latin word meaning “to abandon,” deserere. This is, as you may have guessed, also how we got the verb “to desert.”
However, there is a connection between the word dessert, and the word desert as used in the curious phrase “to get one’s just deserts.” Many people do not notice, or realize that this is not the word dessert, and may wonder why a person “getting his dessert” should be used in a negative way, as it is in the expression. The “desert” referred to also comes from the Latin word servire, which became desservir in French.
The Latin sevire also evolved into another French word, deservire. This word, very similar to desservir, had a different meaning. The prefix de was not used to mean the same as our un to become un-serve. Instead, it was used as an intensifier, so that deservir meant “to serve very well.” Toward the end of the 1200’s, this word entered into the English language as desert to mean a much deserved reward or prize. Therefore, the phrase “he got his just desert,” means “he got what he truly deserved.”