or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

With a Smile

I almost feel bad about how entirely slack I've been for the past little while, but it was a fairly gross August, not particularly congenial to writing, or thinking of any sort. But I'm back. Huzzah.


There's a mobile food kitchen here in Moncton which feeds the down-and-out. I passed the vehicle on my way home from the gym this morning and noticed that the sign on it read, in French, "la dessert alimentaire mobile".

Mobile...alimentary...dessert? What?

A moment's thought will suggest, if you have any French in your background, another possibility, and that is that the English word "dessert", with its extremely specific meaning ("a dish, usually sweet, served, usually, at the end of a meal"), probably came from a French word, that word being "servir", "to serve". And that is, as you can imagine, the case.

It's even more interesting, actually. "Servir" means "to serve" and "desservir", you may have guessed, means more or less "to un-serve"; that is, "to clear the table at the end of the meal". A dessert, therefore, is the thing that signals that you had better finish eating because the table is about to be emptied and cleaned.

The "dessert" in the French phrase on the van has nothing to do with desserts in the English sense: it's the third person present form of the verb "desservir"; "il/elle dessert".


I would have sworn up and down that I had done "just desserts", but I checked my records and apparently I haven't, so here goes.

"Just desserts", of course, must be wrong, because it doesn't make any sense. It is instead "just deserts", "deserts" meaning in this instance "things that are deserved", a very old meaning which no longer really exists in English except for that phrase, which may be why it's so often spelled the wrong way. "Deserve" doesn't come from "desservir"; it's from "deservir", an altogether different kettle of fish, with "de-" acting as an intensifier, meaning "completely", in the same way that "re-" so often acts in that capacity in English ("refine", "to make completely fine"). "Deserve", then, originally meant "to serve very well; to do good service to", and gradually shifted its meaning to become "to be entitled to or worthy of good service".


And yet the "dessert" on the truck does not come from "deservir", "to serve well"; it comes from "desservir", "to un-serve". Where's the sense in that, you ask? Pretty simple: "deservir" no longer exists in French, with "desservir" serving both purposes. Piece o'cake. ("Servir", "to serve", still exists, though, along with such composites as "conservir" and "reservir", which will be transparent even to the non-French speaker, and "asservir", which will not, because it means "to enslave".)


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