Diletante? Dillettante? Dilletante? Dilettante? Yes!

Well, having settled the spelling, what does it mean?

It comes from dilettare which means to delight. So you might imagine it’s a positive word. But no. Or certainly not according to modern dictionaries which say that it’s usually pejorative, a negative judgement. A dilettante is someone who dabbles: perhaps in art or music, perhaps in science. But their amateurism is not applauded, which I think is a shame. My feeling is that the meaning has shifted in fairly recent years. I’m sure that if you had said that Uncle Fred was something of a dilettante in the garden you would have been paying a compliment. But not now. So beware all you copy-editors and proofreaders. Not only does the spelling need to be carefully checked, but also the meaning. Is the author saying what he or she thinks they are? It might be as well to raise a query!

gardening dilettanteIt seems as though the word amateur has gone the same way! Amateurs used to be admirable. They loved what they did. But now I’m not so sure that it’s complimentary. How sad.

A lifetime of copy-editing and proofreading teaches you that the meanings of words shift more quickly than you imagine. Blink and your praise becomes an insult (and vice versa, of course).

What do you think Tennyson meant by dilettante in his poem Maud?

I heard no longer
The snowy-banded, dilettante,
Delicate-handed priest intone.

About the Author:

After taking a degree in English at London University, Daisy set off to become a librarian, only to realise she wanted to work with books before rather than after publication. She spent many happy years with Butterworths publishers, before Devon called, and she left her job as Promotions Manager to work as a freelance publicity consultant, proofreader and copy-editor, working for a wide range of publishers and institutions including Weidenfeld & Nicolson, The King's Fund and the International Statistical Institute. With Richard she set up Chapterhouse in 1991. Her passion for books remains unabated!