Howard Jacobson has just won the prestigious Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question. The chairman of the panel of judges, Andrew Motion, expressed surprise that Jacobson – who is 68 and has written eleven novels – had never even been on the Booker shortlist before. He added: “There is a particular pleasure in seeing someone who is that good finally getting his just deserts”. Getting your just deserts means getting something that you very much deserve – so why did Andrew Motion’s comment sound odd to me? As the definition in the Macmillan English Dictionary shows, this expression is almost always used to talk about someone who has done something bad being punished or having a bad experience. It’s very much like “getting your comeuppance“, as these examples from our corpus show:
The general public have always had a very clear idea of natural justice and are not unhappy to see criminals get their just deserts.
Others believed the rumours that the Australian victim was a wicked , manipulative loan shark who received her just deserts.
Finally the murderous Archdeacon gets his just deserts and is killed by Quasimodo.
… the land of bedtime stories, where goodand beautiful people found love and lived happily ever after and the villains got their just deserts …
It’s a nice example of pragmatics, where the selection of a particular word or phrase encodes the speaker’s attitude.