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Monday, May 30, 2011

If I'm your mentor, are you my mentee?


An alert friend of mine just pointed out that she had come across the word "mentee" in a University of Toronto publication. That would be a person who is being mentored. 

I find this word fascinating, on several fronts. First of all, it's older than you would think: the OED's first quotation is from 1965:
1965 Amer. Econ. Rev. 55 862 What is the typical economics class but a contact between the conservative teacher and his mentees?
Although that one may have been jocular (are economists ever jocular, one wonders), by 1978 it seems less so:
1978 Amer. Polit. Sci. Rev. 72 423 The effects of the mentor on the mentee can be profound.
But what is really interesting is the process of word formation. Interpreting the -or ending of "mentor" as what is called an agent suffix (as in "actor", "mortgagor", etc.), someone has created by back-formation a notional verb "to ment" and then added an "-ee" suffix. 

There is nothing wrong with back-formation; in fact it's the source of such common words as "kidnap" and "manipulate". However, this is an odd case, because the origin of "mentor" is a personal name. 

The original Mentor was a character in Homer's Odyssey (actually Athena the goddess of wisdom in disguise), who acted as a guide and advisor to Telemachus. In 1699 the French author Fénelon published a book called Les Aventures de Télémaque including the character (or should one say "authee"?) Mentor in a starring role as a counsellor. The book was such a hot seller both in French and in translation that by 1750 "mentor" had come to mean "advisor" in many European languages. 

As is so often the case with nouns in English, someone started using "mentor" (but not "ment") as a verb, apparently in sporting circles, about the time of the First World War (that one is probably older than you thought, too). The practice of mentoring employees became popular in the 80s, probably creating a need for a word to designate the beneficiary of the mentoring, and "mentee" was just waiting to fill that need. Although not hugely frequent yet, it looks as though the word has staying power. 

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1 comment:

  1. Katherine:
    I found your article about the word "mentee" (which is, interestingly enough, underlined as a misspelling, as I post this comment) following a Google search for a word to refer to the recipient of the understanding kindness and advice of a cancer support group member. He refers to himself as a mentor to the spouse of a cancer patient. The use of "mentor" in that situation seems odd to me. Would "mentor" be a proper use where one is giving emotional support and offering resource information within support groups? Is there a better word than "mentee" for the recipient of such support?


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.