DILETTANTE [DIL-i-tahnt]: a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler *


Dilettante is one of those words you need to read in its context in order to determine if its use is meant as a compliment or a criticism.

There is a legitimate use of the word dilettante to mean someone who is interested in one or more aspects of art.  The Latin origin of the word, for instance, dilectare,  means simply  “to delight in.”   That’s not all bad.   Many of us, as our lives expand, find that we have never paid as much attention as we might have desired to an art form, whether it be a performing art, literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, or whatever.  After a career in something else, we make begin taking art lessons at a museum, piano lessons from an instructor who specializes in adult students, or even trying our hand at writing that memoire or novel we have always dreamed about.  It’s a legitimate enterprise, and some even find themselves to be pretty good at it.  They could be classified as a dilettante, in that it is an exercise that has not required degrees or years of experience.  It is a dream acted upon.

In another sense, however, the word dilettante can be used in a negative way, to label someone as a rank amateur,  or dabbler.  It’s no secret that there can be some degree of haughtiness among artists of all forms of the arts.   If someone hasn’t “paid their dues” by spending half of their life in poverty attempting to see their name known for an art form, they just don’t deserve the label of “artist.”  There may be some substance to the criticism, in that a late-in-life dabbler in oil painting may not have experienced the time required to know all of the “ins and outs” of the profession.  And a retiree who begins playing the violin may not have a repertoire to call upon that a professional violinist has endured .    The woman who has begun to follow her enjoyment of museums and fine art pieces after many years as a math teacher may not be able to distinguish a true Renoir from a copy…or maybe she can.

It’s hard to tell if the word is meant to be destructive or critical.  I must admit to having always heard the word as being a “put down.”  The word is usually preceded by the words “just a.”   Obviously, it is meant to distinguish a dabbler from a real artist.  But I was pleased to read an Editor’s note in my wife’s current copy of Real Simple magazine  in which she and her colleagues were discussing a subject about which none of them was an expert.  She referred to themselves as ‘editor-dilettantes.”    It was a friendly, non-judgmental, self-descriptive term which accurately described them as rank amateurs in the field being discussed.   It was a good way to use the word.

As one who entered this field of writing as a post-career enterprise, I admit to being one who admires all those writers and bloggers ahead of me who have years of experience.  And I recognize my own limitations.   I guess I can admit to being a dilettante, although the word sounds more comfortable as relating to a woman than a man.  I guess my French kicks in and I see the last syllable of the word as being the French word for “aunt.”

But I am not just dabbling.  This is a serious enterprise for me, as it is for many who have done the same thing I have…pursued a dream and given themselves to it 100%.


Photo Credit:  Karin Jurick

* Dictionary.com


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