No quiz this time; just two stories and a few add-ons.
#1 Years ago, we heard about a small, independent bakery that sounded perfect for the cake we wanted for our daughter’s birthday party. The place was called Just Desserts, and I phoned in our order.
On the day of the event, as I was paying for the luscious-looking cake, I told the owner, “Your shop has a clever name.” She smiled and thanked me.
And then I couldn’t resist getting pedantic. “You know, most people assume that when we say something like ‘He got his just deserts,’ it’s spelled ‘D-E-S-S-E-R-T-S.’ But it isn’t. It’s spelled ‘D-E-S-E-R-T-S.'” The owner stayed focused on tying a string around the box.
“Yeah, you know,” I continued lamely. “I guess it must be related to the word “deserve.”
Another long pause. Finally, the owner handed me the box and responded, “Well, desserts is the only thing we make, so I named my place ‘Just Desserts.'”
“Right,” I said and headed to my car. Some days you just can’t get through to your students.
#2 Last week, I saw “wits’ end” in a highly regarded publication. “Really?” I thought. “Does the apostrophe come after “wits,” or did the publication contain a rare error?”
Guess what. The plural is correct because we are saying I am at the end of my wits – the sum of my knowledge. I have no idea if I have ever written this expression, but if I did, I’ll bet I got it wrong.
Moral of the stories
Common expressions are often hundreds of years old and based in language use and customs we know little about. For that reason, it’s wise to check before we go final with arcane* expressions like “cut and dry” (it’s “cut and dried,” derived from hay or grass being cut, dried, and readied for sale) or “baited breath” (it’s “bated breath,” related to “abated” because we are holding our breath in anticipation).
And by the way, “arcane” doesn’t mean “old,” although it makes us think of “archaic.” “Arcane” means “mysterious,” which does describe many common expressions.
Some expressions are considered correct even when we stray from the original. “Stomping grounds” is an acceptable substitute for the original “stamping grounds.” And even though “champing at the bit” is the real deal, “chomping at the bit” is fine.