How New Words Often Come About:

The commenter who disparaged the term "mentee" wrote,

While I will reluctantly overlook the use of "Mentor" as a verb (that battle is lost), I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the verb "to ment" that "mentee" necessarily implies.

As it happens, it's true that "mentor" comes not from a verb "to ment," but rather -- according to the OED -- from "the name of a character in F. de S. de la Mothe-Fénelon's Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699), after ancient Greek [Mentor], the name of a character in the Odyssey, in whose likeness Athena appears to Telemachus and acts as his guide and adviser."

But so what? "Workaholic" doesn't come from a longstanding suffix "-aholic" meaning "addicted to"; it comes from the last syllable of "alcohol." Likewise with "telethon," which I take it stems indirectly from the place name "Marathon." We can all come up with more examples (consider the various "-gate" scandals).

True, these words tend to have a mildly humorous feel, at least at first; so does, in my view, "mentee." But accepting them hardly "necessarily implies" any particular etymology. It just necessarily implies a recognition that English words come about in lots of different ways, and that stems are often borrowed from one word into another in ways that do not fit well with the source words' own origins.

If smart people use a new word, they get credit for "coining" it. Others get called ignorant. Hmmm....
8.23.2007 2:03pm
You really volokhed him there, Eugene.
8.23.2007 2:11pm
Dave N (mail):
Where is William Safire when you need him?
8.23.2007 2:19pm
Zubon (mail) (www):
Can we at least agree that most "-gate" words are stupid? We do not need to attach that as a suffix to any noun involved in a political scandal or embarassment. At least the words are so blessedly ephemeral that they rarely last as long as the brouhaha about the minor event being -gated.

There are 749 Google hits for "Haircutgate." 750 now, I guess.
8.23.2007 2:19pm
As I've noted before, a language that probably began as a pidgin between Roman soldiers and Celtic pimps doesn't have a lot of "proper" to it.
8.23.2007 2:21pm
WHOI Jacket:
Verbing weirds language.
8.23.2007 2:34pm
scote (mail):
Hold on, I'm "sourcing" a comment now.

I'v always found "mentee" to be silly, like "de-plane." We already have words for these functions, protégé and disembark, and I see no reason to substitute silly made up replacements for perfectly good words.
8.23.2007 2:39pm
KeithK (mail):

As I've noted before, a language that probably began as a pidgin between Roman soldiers and Celtic pimps doesn't have a lot of "proper" to it.

I like the image but English is Germanic in origin, not Celtic.
8.23.2007 2:51pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
I've always thought that the proper companion of a mentor is a protege, while a "mentee" is some sort of marine mammal.

Adding endings like "aholic", "onomics" and "gate" shows true poverty of imagination (as does the pathetic "herstory", especially given the alternative "hystery").

Dishonorable mention to various perversions of "incentive" as well: to determine whehter "incent" is worse than "incentivize" we will probably need a new ... "metric".
8.23.2007 3:01pm
Frater Plotter:
CheckEnclosed: "Metric" (as a noun) is a mathematical term for a function that measures distance between elements of a set. Using it to mean a measurement of achievement or nearness to a goal is possibly physics envy, but it isn't illiteracy.
8.23.2007 3:21pm
AK (mail):
While we're at it, can we please stop referring to email forwards, youtube clips, lolcats, and O RLY owls as "memes"?

I'm firmly convinced that the definition of "meme" has become "thing on the internet that gave me teh lulz."
8.23.2007 3:42pm
Eugene Volokh wrote at August 23, 2007 at 12:50pm:
As it happens, it's true that "mentor" comes not from a verb "to ment," ...
Here is either distant early development warning of an equally annoying but more properly derived word, or perhaps just a note that it died a'bornin'.

Google reveals only 28 examples, some in law journals. Let's hope it remains rare: "tortfeasee".

At least the "-or" suffix in "tortfeasor" actually derives from a verb form:
Anglo-French tortfesor wrongdoer, from tort wrong + fesor faisour doer, maker, from Old French, from fais-, stem of faire to do, make, from Latin facere: a person who commits a tort, delict, or quasi-offense.
So the "-ee" suffix is arguably grammatically appropriate than in "mentee".

Nonetheless, the word "tortfeasee" grates.
8.23.2007 3:49pm
AK (mail):
"I'm a rageoholic! I just can't live without rageohol!"
--Homer Simpson
8.23.2007 3:49pm
JosephSlater (mail):
When I first began teaching, I was assigned a "mentor." Another colleague told me he would asume the role of my "dementor."
8.23.2007 4:19pm
New World Dan (www):
Just to settle this once and for all, can someone please direct me to the high court of language arbitration? I'd like to know who has the final say on what is and isn't a cromulent word.
8.23.2007 4:21pm
Rick Wilcox (www):
In re: disembark, that's an interesting middle-ground concept.

From a purely descriptive standpoint, "de-plane" means what it says, somewhat accurately describes the action being taken, and has slipped into at the least the parlance of its industry.

From a purely prescriptive standpoint, "disembark" is not an accurate term because it only means to leave a boat. Well, okay, this depends on how strict of a prescriptive view someone takes, really, sort of like the people who say that "decimate" only means "reduce by a tenth", or that someone cannot possibly feel "nauseous".

Just a curious thought from someone who used to play devil's advocate to linguistics Ph.D. candidates for fun.
8.23.2007 4:24pm
Rich B. (mail):
Add the suffix -burger to describe that the food has been ground up and placed on a bun.

Oh, for the good old days when words had pure origins, unlike the cockamamie neologisms they coin nowadays.
8.23.2007 4:26pm
pete (mail) (www):
All I know is that having mentees embiggens even the smallest man.
8.23.2007 4:29pm
Bob Goodman (mail) (www):
You could complain about "disembark" too that it's longer and less accurate than "debark". "Disembarking" reads etymologically as if they turned around in the middle of getting on the boat/bark, while "debarking" establishes them as already on and getting off. "Dysembarking" might be anything from stubbing your toe while getting on, to getting on the wrong vessel.

My friend Nadine is convinced she accidentally coined "orientate" as a joke. That is, she made it up as a joke and was chagrined to find out later that it caught on seriously.
8.23.2007 4:36pm
ras (mail):
Nothing wrong with mentee. Chamomile's nice, too.
8.23.2007 4:39pm
LarrySheldon (mail):
Did somebody answer this burning question:

If mentor and mentee have a parting of ways, is one of them "demented"?
8.23.2007 4:40pm
Chris Bell (mail):
The reason English is such a great language is that it is organic. We constantly make up words to fit new situations.

English is also the accepted language for diplomacy not just because America is a super power, but because English is just flat BIGGER. There are almost twice as many words in the English language as the next largest language. (French) Using English allows you to be more precise and avoid diplomatic misunderstandings.

Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words himself.

I fail to see what the commenter was complaining about.
8.23.2007 4:42pm
TruePath (mail) (www):

Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words himself.

I've heard these claims for awhile but I've always been a bit sucpicious of them. What is our reason to believe that Shakespeare himself made up so many words rather than thinking they were common among a certain class of people (perhaps illiterate ones who didn't leave us a written record) and Shakespeare was the first to put them in a work that was worth keeping around for a couple hundred years?
8.23.2007 4:58pm
Volkoholics enthuse to xs.
8.23.2007 5:08pm
We should definitely just continue to abandon any sort of logic in our language. Sure, something like "workaholic" doesn't make any sense, but that's fine. Furthermore, yakka foob mog, grub pubbawump zink watoom gazork. Chumble spuzz.
8.23.2007 5:09pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Calvin: If you're just trying to be absurd, that's fine.

But if you're trying to make a substantive point about the Need To Maintain High Standards If We Are To Be Understood, then please note that (1) "workaholic" makes perfect sense, even if its etymology is less pure than some like, and (2) the problem with "yakka foob mog" is that no-one understands them; people understand "workaholic" just fine. And chumble spuzz to you, too.
8.23.2007 5:20pm
The main reason to object to "mentee" is that it sounds awful. Who would want to be one? It sounds too much like "mental," as in "mental illness." "Protege," on the other hand, sounds like fun.

Sometimes the aesthetic effect really does matter.
8.23.2007 5:29pm
M.E.Butler (mail):
Debarking isn't for getting off the bark. It's for getting the bark off the tree.
8.23.2007 5:45pm
LarrySheldon (mail):
"Debarking isn't for getting off the bark. It's for getting the bark off the tree."

Then "deplane is a natural--if you, like I, are 6'2"-25 stone and have ride in steerage.
8.23.2007 6:01pm
LarrySheldon (mail):
And while we are talking about words, would some kind soul (or sole) explain "nuance" (verb and noun) as used in the political discussions.

And yes, I see that I left a closing quote and a "to" out of the preceding post. I seem never to be able to see those until too late.
8.23.2007 6:04pm
BobH (mail):
"Debarking" = severing a dog's vocal cords.
8.23.2007 6:04pm
BobH (mail):
Larry Sheldon asks for an explanation of "nuance."

"My uncles got married and now I have nuance."

I got a million of 'em.
8.23.2007 6:06pm
bittern (mail):

I'v always found "mentee" to be silly, like "de-plane." We already have words for these functions, protégé and disembark, and I see no reason to substitute silly made up replacements for perfectly good words.

Protege is not good for typing because I can't find the accent marks on my keyboard. And protege doesn't read right without the accents. It's too French. It will never Anglicize properly. And protege has a much different feel than mentee. I would think a mentee is someone in a formal, but slightly awkward mentor-mentee program, getting a little guidance on how to build a career within a certain field or organization. A protege admires, promotes, and tries to be like, the person they follow.

So, who does a protege follow, if it's not a mentor? We need a new word, protaegeon: person who a protege follows.
8.23.2007 6:07pm
"The reason English is such a great language is that it is organic. We constantly make up words to fit new situations." (Chriss Bell)

Thanks, Chris. Now I don't feel so alone.

I have no idea how I would survive at this institution without recourse to the word "sweatbeetle-dickweed"; the provenance of which, near as I can tell, is Mystery Science Theater 3,000. Without it, I'd have to call the associate dean *by name*. And when you do that, it sometimes summons him. Which supports one of my theories about him, but which, nonetheless, is creepy.
8.23.2007 6:10pm
"protege" will eventually be Anglicized with the pronunciation PRO-teezh. Mark my words. We are already seeing bars with "Karryokee nights." English is the tiger shark of languages: It can devour anything and keep right on swimming.
8.23.2007 6:14pm
BobH (mail):
This is perhaps the greatest thread EVER.
8.23.2007 6:14pm
bittern (mail):
Oh, and de-plane may be ugly, but it's nothing compared to pre-boarding. What's THAT s'posed to mean, anyway?
8.23.2007 6:39pm
BobH (mail):
Pre-boarding is like waterboarding, but the torture lasts for hours and you have less legroom.
8.23.2007 6:52pm
Jeff R.:
Speaking of Disembarking, I've always been a little bit peeved by the use of the syllable-profligate 'disenfranchise' when 'disfranchise' works perfectly fine and save a few milliseconds with every use....
8.23.2007 6:53pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
New World Dan:

Of old, the Cromulens made those decisions, but ever since discovering a wormhole in some wormwood, they've gone absinthe.
8.23.2007 6:54pm
Christopher (www):
This kind of neologism is called a "back-formation." It occurs when a speaker assumes a word has a root that doesn't exist, and then that root becomes a word itself. The Wikipedia entry for "back-formation" has hundreds of examples, most of them verbs created from nouns:

diagnose from diagnosis
kidnap from kidnapper
intuit from intuition

One of my favorites, and one that makes the formation easy to understand, is "to cherrypick" from the word "cherry-picker." Also, "burger" from "hamburger."

"Workaholic" and "telethon" are a similar kind of formation that breaks words up among imagined roots, though I can't recall the name for it. "Helipad" from "helicopter" is a good example--the roots actually break between "helico" and "pter" (spiral/wing). Also, "the Batcopter."
8.23.2007 6:57pm
Hoosier wrote at 8.23.2007 5:14pm:
We are already seeing bars with "Karryokee nights."
The art of singing off key while drunkenly toting a native of Oklahoma?
8.23.2007 7:12pm
Ahcuah (mail):
I've always felt that the person mentored by a mentor ought to be called, not a mentee, but a telemachus.

For those not sufficiently up with the classics, look it up!

(And, of course, the Mentor advising Telemachus wasn't even really Mentor.)
8.23.2007 8:14pm
Bleepless (mail):
"De plane, boss! De plane!"
8.23.2007 11:37pm
crane (mail):
In my high school, we got to see back-formation in action, though I don't think many of use appreciated it at the time. The word "jack" was commonly used (in slang) to mean "steal" - as in "dude, someone jacked my new speakers".

I'm pretty sure this was the result of somebody splitting carjack into its component parts. If you can call someone a carjacker, it seems reasonable to say that they jack cars. Once you've made that jump, it's only logical to assume that "jack" is a synonym for "steal". And "carjack" itself is of course a back-formation from "hijack".

I have no clue why "bogart" was also used to mean "steal", though.
8.23.2007 11:49pm
crane wrote at 8.23.2007 10:49pm:
I have no clue why "bogart" was also used to mean "steal", though.
Geez, kids these days!
8.24.2007 2:04am
I agree with Chris Bell's sentiment. Back-constructing words, taking words and making them into another part of speech, distinguishing between such words based on what suffixes are involved (with the example above, the noun Volokh could provide at least three distinct verbs, each with its own meaning: "to volokh", "to volokhify", and "to volokhate"... although my guess is that "volokhify" would probably evolve into "volofy" pronounced "volofie" since the k-sound before the "-ify" suffix is a bit of a challenge), and so fourth allows for more precise speech. It's like working with more significant figures, the way I see it. What is the value of pi? Well, if you've got no sigfigs after the decimal, pi is 3. I see that as the "well, we've got 'disembark' already, so no need to allow 'deplane'" situation. You could use one or two sigfigs, and say pi is 3.1 or 3.14, and I see that as "You can say 'disembark' or 'deplane' and they'll be both ok." 3.14159, that's "Disembark, debark, or deplane", and calculating pi out to kilosigfigs is I guess akin to assigning slight variations of meaning to "disembark, deplane, debark, unbark, selfunplanicate...".
8.24.2007 2:23am
Kovarsky (mail):
people that correct spelling and punctuation in informal contexts win the second-lamest dudes award. first place goes to people that have joined MENSA.
8.24.2007 3:27am
Crunchy Frog:
And here I thought that a mentee was one of those big stupid mammals that keep getting chewed up by boat propellers in the Florida everglades...
8.24.2007 3:44am
Lee David (mail):
Selfunplanicate? My spellchecker can't find that one but it pegged my laughameter.
8.24.2007 4:37am
Lee David (mail):
Or should that be laughometer?
8.24.2007 4:40am
Anon. Coward, esq.:
laughameter, laughometer, let's call the whole thing off.
8.24.2007 12:06pm

I like the image but English is Germanic in origin, not Celtic.

I stand corrected. Is 'Anglic' a word?
8.24.2007 12:08pm
PersonFromPorlock: Yes, Anglic is a word. It has a Wikipedia entry and everything. Also, identifies it both as a language created by a Swede around the early 1900s to make English easier to learn as a second language (I'm guessing it didn't catch on) and as a synonym for "Anglian", which apparently refers both to England and to East Anglia in England.

Lee David: glad to be of service.
8.24.2007 6:30pm