One of the pitfalls of thinking of yourself as “a person who knows things” is that you sometimes don’t have a clear sense of just what it is you know. I’ve been a teacher for the last fifty years or so and when my attempts to ensnare the students’ curiosity fail, I wind up standing at the front of the room giving the answers to questions very few of the students have asked. Or, on other days—particularly in lower division university classes—thundering away about some aspect of politics that has agitated me and that could, with some generosity of spirit, be thought to belong within the course I am teaching at the moment.
That much to introduce the idea that when my subscription to A-Word-A-Day popped dilettante up on my screen, I deleted it and went on to more pressing matters. Fortunately, my brother John knows of my interest in the word and forwarded it to me. Not, I hasten to say, as an accusation; just as an affirmation that this word has interest for me and that the thought of me when he saw it. Here is what it said:
noun: One who takes up an activity or interest in a superficial or casual way. adjective: Superficial; amateurish.
From Italian dilettante (amateur), from Latin delectare (to delight). Earliest documented use: 1733.
“I long ago came to realize that I am a putterer, a grazer, a dilettante. I create the impression of getting a lot done by dabbling through my days: I read two pages of a book, write half a letter, paint a portion of the front porch, bake half a tin of muffins, teach a class, wash a window.” Robert Klose; Confessions of a Dedicated Dilettante; The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Massachusetts); May 10, 2004.
Not very attractive, is it? Obviously, I don’t feel that way about the word or I would not have tattooed it, metaphorically speaking, on my forehead. Also, it’s not like I feel the word can be refurbished. It is what it has become. This post will have abundant illustrations of what it has become. You get the illustrations by googling dilettante and choosing “images.”
I do think the word could be given a little more fiber, though. Maybe furbished up a little. I have two approaches in mind. The second will be etymological. I suppose that won’t surprise anyone. But let’s start with an approach that is, for lack of a better word, “temporal.” Robert Klose, in the quote above, has a very short span of time in mind: “two pages of a book” and “half a tin of muffins” and washing a single window. This is puttering, certainly, but there is no delight in it and I hate to see a line of words deriving from delectare, “to delight,” stoop to simple puttering.
Mr. Klose believes, apparently, that one cannot delight in projects that take longer than washing one window. A man could not, in this usage, take delight in the times he spent with his children when they were small or the confidences he exchanges with them now that they are large. He could not take delight in the strength and warmth of his own marriage. He could not delight in the steady endurance of friends who have hung around in times when that was not easy to do. He could not delight in the fruits of his own work; neither the slow but growing readiness his students show to question common assumptions or the eruption of new insights. I’m a teacher, remember.
Someone who wanted to defend the most common notions of what dilettante means would be almost certain to say that words like satisfaction or approval are used to indicate our response to outcomes like those, and he would be right. But, first, those words don’t mean any more what they have meant over most of their histories and second, those words don’t specify what my own response to those outcomes must be. Is there any reason, for instance, that I cannot find satisfaction with the way I have parented my children and stepchildren today and take delight in it tomorrow? I don’t think so.
And if delight is restricted to the first spoonful of the hot fudge sundae or to the reaction to an author’s first page or to the first paragraph (only) of a blogpost, then I can see why “putterer” would be an adequate synonym for dilettante. But, of course, I don’t see any reason why it should be limited like that. What shall we do, for instance, if we are “ensnared?”
When I make a reference to the origins of dilettante, I usually stop at delectare, “to delight,” but in a quest for “fiber,” I want to look a little further up the tree today. The Latin delectare is a frequentative (happens over and over, like the “sparkle,” which is a frequentative of “spark.”) of the Old Latin delicere, itself a combination of de-, “from,” and lacere, “to entice.” Or, my dictionary says, “literally, to ensnare.” Now there’s a notion with a little grit in it.
It is not only what I delight in, as a putterer might, but what I am ensnared by. A snare, let me remind you, is a device for catching and holding; for not allowing to escape. If we are looking at being ensnared in the context of being delighted, we are looking at something from which one does not wish to escape. The question of whether I could escape if I wanted to is moot; I don’t want to.
Being enticed and consequently ensnared and consequently delighted sounds pretty substantial to me. Let’s just say that if you have been really ensnared, you aren’t puttering. The students I introduced in the first paragraph may or may not have had puttering in mind when they registered for my course, but if I have been able to ensnare their curiosity, to fix and hold it, they are on their way to being dilettantes and I say, “Welcome, there is room for you all.”
 These examples are all male examples because I am reflecting on my own life. I do not mean to imply that women could not take the same kind of delight; only that if it is different from men, I wouldn’t know enough about it to write about it.