Defending Dilettantism

I have recently been called a “dilettante”, an appellation I accepted with mixed pleasure. But I’ve converted this feeling to full-on unadulterated pleasure by means of my patented method of twisting meanings. Here’s the precept of this method: only the vulgar concern themselves with the “meaning” of a word. A word does not have a “meaning” in itself — there’s just a social arrangement concerning what one should understand it to mean. As the social arrangement changes, the meaning changes.

The application? “Dilettante” is in itself not a negative word. It’s the Italian present participle of dilettare, to delight. So a dilettante is literally someone who is taking delight in something. This is a word we dilettantes can reclaim, as expressing one of the best things one can do. If you’re a dilettante, you’re not just working on something for money, or recognition — you’re working on it because you love it. An obviously similar case could be made for amateur.

OK, we’ve justified our actions: now we get to have fun. Dilletare comes from the Latin delectare. This comes straight into English as “delect”, but nobody uses that one. But in old French we see delectare becoming delitier – let it hop over the Channel and presto! the English word “delite”, spelled “delight” by the vulgar. These words are kissing cousins with “delicious” as well.

But back to the Italian – do we get anything else of interest from dilettare? I am so glad you asked, because according to the Lexicon Balatronicum, the Italian diletto comes into English in another form, viz. “dildo”. This etymology may have been stolen from Bailey — I gots no copy so I can’t tell. In any case, Richard Burton, as learned and sloppy a scholar as anyone, borrowed it for his translation of the “Arabian Nights”, so it’s good enough for me.

The Lexicon Balatronicum also mentions that another Italian word for “dildo” was passatempo. Unfortunately there’s no record of English “pastime” or its loser variant “pastance” ever taking on this meaning. Oh, the snickering I could have done!

40 Responses to “Defending Dilettantism”

  1. e. Says:

    Excellent derivation! Who called you a dilletante? I’ll have words with that unknown assailant.

    I recall Brian Eno, who in an appendix in “A Year With Swollen Appendices” comes to peace with the word “pretentious,” a word that “is used negatively, especially in Britain, where it has the sense of ‘rising above one’s station,’ of trying to do something to which you had no right. I am glad to have attempted something which I had no right to attempt…” This in the midst of some text describing the idea of “taking the waters” (attending a spa) as a universal (and placebonic (?)) cure in Victorian times–and comparing such a placebo with electronic music. Smashing guy, that Eno.

    I applaud your reappropriation of “dilletanterie” in the same spirit!

  2. Desultor Says:

    E., thanks for the story! I can now happily call myself pretentious, instead of with mixed feelings as before.

    This person is the one who called me a dilettante. Go to it!

  3. Erin Says:

    Before you sick your cronies on me, keep in mind that I’m the biggest fan of your various intellectual endeavors. I think you should continue to plunge (head first) into the shallow end of a thousand obscure disciplines and ideas rather than get bogged down in just one topic. You never bore me. And I bore easily. It’s true.

  4. TJN Says:

    I assume I won’t receive a response to this comment as it would appear your blogging is complete. I also imagine it’s quite presumptuous of me to comment on a stranger’s blog.

    However, presumptuousness aside, I am making my attempt. I wanted to commend you on your further defining a sometimes derogatory stereotype. You see, I too am donning a scarlet “D” and am currently formulating a trivial “Apologies for the Dilettantish.” I had done a google search of “appellation and dilettante” hoping to pull up some significant historical dabblers when I came across your blog.

    I admit I have an ulterior motive in contacting you. It is a question I hope you can shed some light on. I am but a lowly undergraduate with my eyes set on the hallowed halls of law school. As of late, I have been a bit concerned with my dilettantish stereotype. You–a fellow dabbler–obviously are enrolled in our finest! Would you be kind enough to perhaps share you own experience as a dilettante subverted to the demands of the rigorous curriculum of the juris doctorate?

    Thank yo

  5. TJN Says:


    Re: “Thank yo”

    Thank you in advance for any time or assistance you can provide me.

  6. desultor Says:

    Hi TJN,

    Glad to have your comment!

    I’m afraid I’m not an HLS student. However, I spent some time there as an employee, and got a sense of the student body. I’d say that being a generalist needn’t be a block to studying there, or probably any other law school. Getting a J.D. is a lot of work (though I don’t know if it’s necessarily any more at HLS than anyplace else), and does require some dedication and focus. But people with broad interests will improve any academic setting they’re in, and not many of the students I met at HLS were single-minded drones.

    So, I’d say go for it! Best of luck in your endeavors.

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