One of the positives (or is it a negative?) of working with language so much of the time is the sheer volume of unusual things you encounter. Not simply an odd word or usage here and there, but also the debates people have over those same things—as well as the feelings they express about them.
A term that I’ve encountered a handful of times in that last way is “mentee” as the companion term to “mentor.” It’s used to identify the one who is mentored.
A fair number of people don’t like this term (and some really don’t like it). In full disclosure, I’ve never been a fan. On the other hand, I don’t encounter it a lot and I don’t feel very strongly about it. I believe there are equally good or better words in most cases, and I’ve long been nagged by a feeling that there’s something ‘wrong’ about the word, but I never had a reason to look into it or to care very much.
Mentee popped up on my radar a couple weeks back when I ran across it in an online news story (something from CNN, I believe, but I didn’t record the source). Reading it, my thought was “oh…has ‘mentee‘ been mainstreamed enough that it’s acceptable in online news?” Asking the question already gives the answer.
Encountering the word in an online news source is one thing, but what about more conservative outlets? Has it been embraced by “the paper of record” or others that are typically slower to accept language change? It was time to find out. First, a few words on mentee.
Mentee is a moderately maligned word used to identify a pupil or student. Other synonyms, near and far, include advisee, acolyte, apprentice, and protégé, to name a few. In most usage, a mentee is paired, explicitly or implicitly, with a mentor. The word “mentor” itself is relatively modern, only taking on this use in the early 1700s after the popularity of a 1699 French novel which highlighted Mentor, a character from the Odyssey. Mentor, as a teacher, was adopted into French, English, and German within a few decades, and into Italian and Spanish within a few more. The companion to mentor, mentee, was not documented in a print use for another 200 years.
Major dictionaries and similar sources agree on these basic facts. GMAU notes that “The main oddity about the [mentor/mentee] pair is that unlike most pairs ending in -or and -ee, these are not from a verb stem….There is no verb *to ment.” GMAU goes on to suggest that the pair can be included among vogue words; “vogue words” is one of the more judgmental and dismissive entries in GMAU and is not worthy of the work’s usual high editorial standards.
For those of you preparing to march into battle to beat back mentee, consider what you’re up against: it was a trivial matter for me to find occasional uses of it in the New York Times back to 2010, with rare uses to at least 1995. That turned out to be an ironic secondary citation: it was a letter complaining about an appearance of the word in the Times a week earlier. The correspondent did not approve of William Safire’s use of mentee—but was unaware of the trap he’d stumbled into.
A little more digging found that Safire had been taken to task for using this word before (in 1991). Even at that earlier date, he admitted that he’d used mentee with the hope of receiving complaints (he did), so any later uses, such as the one that received the 1995 complaint, were surely made with provocation in mind. Safire traced the first print use of the word to 1978. The last two paragraphs of that 1991 column show Safire’s reasoning on why the word should be accepted. Safire had used the word in print at least as far back as 1980 with no direct comment on its form: he spent most of that particular column on the verbification of nouns.
An interesting aspect of one of the complaint letters is that it makes the same point as GMAU: mentee is an aberrant -ee form because it doesn’t follow the pattern of being formed from a root verb. (Garner only points out the lack of a verb root; the Times correspondent scolds over it. It’s a good example of what the old descriptivist/prescriptivist debate looks like.) Garner’s thoughts on this are clear and useful, and reading it alerted me to exactly why I’ve always felt there was something off about mentee.
The classical greek origin (“Mentor” as a name) aside, my personal lack of enthusiasm for mentee has had more to do with what I perceive as a certain inherent incompleteness or roughness in the word. It seems that mentee would work better as “mentoree.” That might also satisfy at least some of those who are obstinate on the “Mentor as a name, not a verb” point: it would still not be derived from a verb, but the origin would be more clear.
I’m not alone in this line of thinking. A quick search uncovers a substantial number of uses of mentoree and possibly a few champions. It is clearly the less popular form, though. When it comes to sussing out origins and first use, the best I could uncover for mentoree was a use from the long-ago realm of 1972. The term seemed to have a brief period of popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it’s been continuously in use somewhere, but it’s never gained traction. It turns up at a steady but very infrequent level of use—about 1% of the frequency of mentee, which is not exactly common itself. I couldn’t find mentoree in any mainstream dictionary.
Most dictionaries claim a first use for mentee from 1965. A few sketchier online sources cite a source from 1958, but that doesn’t seem reliable. The use of both words (mentee, mentoree) was vanishingly small before the 1980s. Use of mentee has spiked by a factor of 16 since 1990 (it’s still uncommon).
If you’re not already used to mentee, it’s probably more than time that you got accustomed to it. It doesn’t seem like a word that’s going away.
For some provocative thoughts on the politics and ideology of Mentors, mentors, and mentees, take a look at this.