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Sherbet or Sherbert—What Is Right?

  • Sherbet is a name for several different kinds of desserts or sweets.
  • Sherbert is a variant spelling of the word sherbet. It’s often considered a mistake.

As long as it’s sweet and tasty, does it really matter how sherbet is spelled? Well, it might not, but it wouldn’t hurt to learn a bit more about this exotic word and the various sweets it applies to.

Sherbet vs. Sherbert

Ever since the word sherbet got into the English language, the alternate spelling (and pronunciation) sherbert has also been there, lurking in the shadows. Some dictionaries, like the OED, say it’s a common misspelling. Others, such as Merriam-Webster, think sherbert has earned its place as a variant spelling of sherbet. If you’re not sure which one to use, always go with the one that’s universally recognized as correct: sherbet.

Sherbet or Sherbert GIF

What Is Sherbet?

What does the word sherbet (pronounced SHER-but or SHER-bit) mean to you? Do you think it’s a sweet fizzy powder you can dilute in water or put on sweets like lollipops? Is it an icy dessert for you, similar to ice cream? Or maybe it’s just a funny way of saying beer? If you’ve traveled enough of the anglophone world, you’ll know that sherbet can be all three of these things, and maybe even a couple of others.

In South and West Asia, the word sharbat is used along with sherbet, and it signifies a cooling drink made of water, flower petals, and fruit juices. In the United Kingdom, sherbet is a fizzy powder that can be diluted in water to create a drink, or it can be used as a topping on other sweets. In the United States, sherbet is a frozen dessert similar to the British water ice. It’s like ice cream and sorbet, but not completely the same: it contains less dairy than ice cream, but more dairy than sorbet. In the United Kingdom and Australia, it’s not uncommon to see sherbet used as an euphemism for beer:

Campaigning continued in the Royal Oak pub just off the Market Place. Mr Farage later tweeted he had gone in for a sherbet to thank local UKIP activists.BBC

The Origin of Sherbet

To find the origin of the word sherbet, you’d have to go back to where the popular dessert/sweet powder/refreshing drink originated—the Middle East. The Arabic word šarba, which literally means a drink, is where the word sherbet comes from. It came to English in the early seventeenth century through the Turkish şerbet, which is a form of the Persian šerbet, itself a derivation from the original Arabic word. Sorbet has the same Arabic root.

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