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Jacobson gets his just deserts

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.

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Michael Rundell


  • Of course this is why a corpus is such an essential resource for any kind of writing about language. But how odd that such a distinguished writer of prose and poetry – former poet laureate, no less – should have such a tin ear when it comes to using his own language. Unless he didn’t *really* like the book and his apparently warm words concealed a much more ambivalent attitude…

  • How right you are, Liz. As if to prove the point, I had an idea that the ironic or negative aspect of “getting your just deserts” was equally true of expressions using the collocation “richly deserve”. When I looked at the data, I did find a few cases that supported this hypothesis (e.g. “I am sure the public in West Lothian will treat them with the contempt they so richly deserve”), but a clear majority were like this one: “I am delighted our staff are receiving the recognition they so richly deserve as they work extremely hard to deliver the best results”. In the old days of smaller corpora, you couldn’t always be confident when drawing conclusions from just a few examples. But we have 167 corpus examples that include the string “so richly deserve”, and that’s enough evidence to show very clearly how a phrase like this works.

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