March 2, 2015
The mnemonic I learned in school–and perhaps you, too–was that “dessert” had two s’s because it was sweet stuff, but “desert” had only one because it was just sand. Today there’s probably as much desert as ever (they cover about a fifth of the earth’s surface), but desserts are in decline.
“Only 12 percent of dinners eaten at home in the United States ended with something sweet last year,” significant decline over the past few decades, according to data from market research firm NPD group, and many restaurants don’t really want you to order dessert because their margins are smaller on desserts.
I’m happy to say dessert is alive and well at our house, though some of us eat fruit and some of us eat cookies. But where did that word come from? Here’s what etymology.com says:
dessert (n.)c.1600, from Middle French dessert (mid-16c.) “last course,” literally “removal of what has been served,” from desservir “clear the table,” literally “un-serve,” from des- “remove, undo” (see dis-) + Old French servir “to serve” (see serve (v.)).
But now it looks like it’s the main course that’s clearing the table, not the dessert.