Mentor, mentee — how about mentoree?

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.

Moving on…

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.

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On Behalf of Jamais Vu

Do you ever have an experience where, without warning, something that you’re familiar with feels suddenly like you’re encountering it for the very first time?

There’s actually a term for this: it’s jamais vu, the opposite of déjà vu. Instead of the feeling of having seen something before (when you never have—that’s déjà vu), jamais vu is the feeling that you’re encountering something only for the very first time (when you know that, in fact, you have encountered that thing many times).

Déjà vu is a relatively new term in English, first borrowed from the French around 1903 according to sources. I’ve come across a few fuzzy references to suggest that jamais vu has been around for about the same amount of time, but it doesn’t appear in any dictionary I’ve consulted. My searches turned up some French uses early in the 20th century, but I can’t confirm a strictly English use prior to 2000.

Every once in a great while I’ll have this jamais vu experience with a word or phrase. This is not terribly surprising, as some of the few experiments involving jamais vu involve the use of rapid word repetition to trigger it. Note this one especially.*

It most recently happened to me with the word “behalf.” I had typed the word out several times in the course of editing a document, and somewhere around the fourth or fifth use I looked at it and thought behalf…that’s not really a word, is it?”

That’s a very strange experience to have, where one goes from automatically using a string of characters with a straightforward meaning to questioning whether or not you just made the word up and that it means absolutely nothing. It’s especially disconcerting when you can’t immediately dispel the feeling, which happened to me in this case. After pondering the last appearance in the document, then deleting and re-typing it several times, I was only able to shake the feeling by looking behalf up in an online dictionary to prove that it existed (and that I was using it—and spelling it—correctly). It was a very strange few moments indeed.

Jamais vu aside, behalf still strikes me as one of the odder words in English. In fact, it is. It’s one of those linguistic relics that dates back a very long way, but has only an extremely narrow and limited existence in current English: it’s only used as part of the phrase “on behalf of” (rarely “in behalf of”) and occasionally in the construction “on <some entity’s> behalf.”

According to the OED, the noun behalf was originally a phrase (“be healfe”) meaning “by the side” but then fell into use mostly as a preposition—the same way we might use around or near or…before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, or beyond. It turns out that those “be-“ prepositions have similar origins to behalf. Some of their meanings have wobbled or changed over the centuries before settling into their current definitions, but they all began as (and for the most part still function as) words that indicate relative position. The verb begin, which slipped into the previous sentence (began) almost without me noticing it, shares some roots with these others in the murky mists of etymology.

Behalf has been documented since 1300 or so, but in the past two centuries it has been rarely used except in the sense discussed here. It once had a plural form (behalfs), but that fell away with the word’s older uses.

The etymology above is summarized from the OED, but Merriam-Webster has a note regarding on behalf vs in behalf that I found to be of interest: “A body of opinion favors in with the ‘interest, benefit’ sense of behalf and on with the ‘support, defense’ sense. This distinction has been observed by some writers but overall has never had a sound basis in actual usage.” Note that for the “usage superstitions” file.

When someone acts on behalf of someone else, it means that they speak for the benefit of or in the interest of or to intercede for that other party. Acting on your own behalf…well, that meaning is self-evident.

My instinct would be that you’ll most commonly encounter behalf near and in the legal system: in filings, transcripts, summaries of proceedings, and so forth. It also gets rolled out a lot in what I think of as public ceremonial settings: when someone makes a statement or takes an action on behalf of a larger group. “I thank you on behalf of all residents of the city,” or “The entire class of 2021 appreciates your efforts on our behalf.”

Not much more needs to be said on behalf of behalf. My jamais vu experience aside, it’s a real word, it’s an old word, and it’s a word used only in a few very specific ways.


*And if you read that article title without catching the word duplication then you’ve got some work to do before taking a job as a copyeditor or proofreader!

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Shibboleth — not someone who predicts the future and not a Lovecraft monster

I’ve been swimming into the depths of political speech again lately, and that means I encounter interesting words and concepts that aren’t always common in everyday use. One of the words that crops up now and then is “shibboleth.”

I can’t confirm that I’ve ever had reason to put this word into print before today (and it’s certainly not one I use in casual conversation). That’s not a huge surprise: Oxford rates this word as appearing somewhere in the range of once in every 1 million to 10 million words (Band 4; Oxford bases its frequency score in turn on the Google Ngrams corpus since 1970 ).

Despite the unusual (and almost alien) nature of the word to an English speaker, it’s been around for a long time and describes a useful linguistic and social concept.

A shibboleth, narrowly, is a kind of linguistic password. It’s something that reveals something about the speaker’s identity. In the strict traditional sense, it’s used by someone in one group to recognize a person in another group.

Being no biblical scholar, I’ll accept the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s estimate that the Book of Judges, the part of the Bible where the word is first recorded, dates to around 550 BCE. Oxford dates the first use of shibboleth in English to a bible from 1382, with the word migrating into more figurative use by the first half of the 17th century.

The biblical origin of the word is pretty nasty when judged by modern standards: it recounts (some might say glorifies) an occasion when one tribe killed thousands of defeated enemy soldiers who were attempting to surreptitiously escape across the border after identifying them based on their pronunciation of a single word (“shibboleth”). According to the story, people of the two warring tribes pronounced the word differently, with those of one unable to make the “sh” sound and defaulting to “sibboleth.” The incident is in chapter 12 of the Book of Judges (start with chapter 11 for the whole story).

Historically, the idea appears to have been used repeatedly—and often with unpleasant results. One Wikipedia entry includes a list of known and believed incidents from history.

Less strictly, shibboleth is used to denote some verbal or behavioral indicator that flags someone as part of a group. Oxford’s definition extends this to include a particular manner of dress or the use of professional jargon. In the less strict sense, a shibboleth can be used to identify someone of the “in” group just as easily as someone in the “out” group.

While shibboleths work and are a useful idea, it’s not a foolproof concept. That same Wikipedia entry, for instance, also includes a list of US place names that are frequently used as shibboleths to sort locals from non-locals. That sort of knowledge can be learned at a distance these days. Having lived near some of those places, and having done business with people in several of the others, I’ve learned to change my default “outsider” pronunciation of them. I’m aware of a number of others, including the city I currently live in, Waltham, Massachusetts.

Regionalisms can also function as shibboleths—the Pittsburgh “yinz” and Rhode Island’s “what cheer?”—spring to mind. They don’t work in exactly the same way, but can be similarly revealing in how those not familiar with them react. Again, a little bit of knowledge and effort can often go a long way: I attended college in the South (the “shallow” South, not the Deep South) and within a few months had identified about half a dozen subtle differences in pronunciation that gave me away as “a Yankee” to those students who cared about such things. It didn’t take much to camouflage these “tells,” and that knowledge still serves me well in some social situations. To stress: this isn’t exactly the definition of a shibboleth, but I think the similarity of ideas helps demonstrate what we’re talking about.

In contemporary American culture, the far right in general and QAnon in particular are known for many shibboleths; that’s a deep rabbit hole not suitable for discussion here. To be completely fair, though, it’s pretty easy to find shibboleths in groups across whatever spectrum you’re looking at, whether that’s political, class, professional, or some shared interest.

Shibboleth is also the name of an open-source software product which is described as “one of the most widely used identity management systems in the world.” It strikes me as a curious name choice, considering the word origin and modern definition. But using shibboleth to mean “a kind of linguistic password” makes this use more understandable.


The references in the title of this post are to “sibyl,” a Greek-derived term for an oracle or prophetess, and “shoggoth,” a species of dangerous, intelligent amorphous creatures that appear in the story “At the Mountains of Madness.”

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When is a word not a word?

The question should be: Is there any validity to a claim that “a word isn’t a word?”

Alright, you’re asking yourself: What’s got his goat this time?

It’s not so dramatic as that! But, because I spend (waste?) some portion of my time sifting through the seemingly infinite pages of grammar and usage advice on the internet, I frequently encounter things that interest me. Or annoy me. Or make me laugh, or cry…or sigh in despair. Or some simultaneous combination of all of the above.

During this unending wandering, I recently came across a persnickety article that insisted that “impactful” is not a word. This sort of definitive declaration always gets my attention. I’m not (usually) someone who supports a position that involves absolutes, and that’s especially (but not universally) true when it comes to definitions.

Click for more impact!

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Microaggressions in Editing?

An interesting headline crossed my desk from a couple of different directions recently. Here’s the source story by Crystal Shelley over at ACES, if you’d like to give it a quick read before continuing (it’s short but it’s not necessary to read it to follow this post).

My initial reaction to the headline—before reading the story—was “really?” Feel free to attribute a healthy helping of sarcasm to how you read my comment.

But that reaction lasted only seconds. Because even without reading the story, I knew exactly what the author would be talking about, and I totally understood the point. More importantly, I agree with it.

Don’t execute a microaggression by closing the tab. Just click here.

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