I was thinking yesterday about how I’m a bit of a dilettante when it comes to music. I like a lot of acts and genres, but I couldn’t narrow my preferences down to anything very particular.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn by looking at it that the word is an Italian loanword, with the original meaning lover of music or painting, and being derived from the verb dilettare, meaning to delight.

As with many English words, the sense of dilettante has shifted over the years. It was originally a positive term, referring to an idealised sort of gifted amateur, who maybe never developed a deep knowledge of certain arts, but gained an admirable pleasure from his superficial dabblings nonetheless.

In the late 19th century it became more of a pejorative term, contrasted with professional. Probably just because people were jealous of dilettantes’ great taste in music.

I was also thinking about this word a few weeks ago while reading Dylan Dog. One of the characters referred to his delitti, which I took to mean delights. It kind of made sense in context, but not quite, so I looked it up. It turned out that delitti means crimes (or killings), which made more sense, as the guy was a serial killer. Though because he enjoyed murder, delights would have made sense too.

Delitto also shares its origins with the delicto part of the phrase in flagrante delicto (in blazing offence), which I always took to mean delight too, in a caught-in-the-act sort of way.

All of which is causing me to reflect on the nature of reading to help learn a second language. It’s a great idea, and really helps one notice grammatical structures and the meanings of words. But what’s the best way to read? Reading without stopping is a great way to develop reading fluency and figure out the general meaning of a text. It also helps you notice grammatical structures and what they mean.

But sometimes, you need to stop and check what something means, as it’s the only way to find out what a word means. And if you’re reading a story, understanding a particular word or phrase is often necessary to understand much of the rest of the story, if it occurs at a key point of the story. If I hadn’t checked what delitti were, I might have thought I was reading a story about a serial dilettante. Though all the blood and eye stabbing would suggest otherwise…

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