Please Tell Me You're Joking:

On the "mentee" thread, some commenters suggested that "protege" was an adequate substitute for "mentee." Others pointed out that "protege" tends to have a different meaning (a protege gets patronage and support, while mentees tend to just get advice). But one wrote:

Instead of creating a new word to represent someone who is receiving guidance under a mentor as a 'mentee', couldn't someone (not certain of who is responsible for adding/changing definitions to the official dictionaries) simply add an additional definition to the word protege to allow for further meaning?

I so much hope that this is just a very subtle parody of prescriptivism, rather than a serious suggestion.

Alan Gunn (mail):
Not so much a parody of prescriptivism as an illustration of how people who aren't prescriptivists tend to misunderstand prescriptivism (or at least the sensible, latitudinarian sort of prescriptivism in which I think I engage). Prescriptivism resembles common-law decisionmaking; there's no central authority, decisionmakers can be wrong, and custom and history play large parts (but not the only parts). The comment seems to presuppose the existence of some sort of legislature, which we don't have. (The law was itself in better shape before legislators started their massive tinkering.)

I've always thought Holmes was wrong to laugh at those who thought of the common law as a "brooding omnipresence in the sky." And I think Erie RR. v. Tompkins was wrong. Which may illustrate a consistency between my view of language and my thoughts about the law. (Yes, I know: the preceding string of words is not a conventional sentence. Tough.)
8.24.2007 11:31am
SailorDave (www):
Yes it's funny, but he may be right! My dictionary,, defines protege as "one who is protected or trained or whose career is furthered by a person of experience, prominence, or influence". Sounds like someone with a mentor to me, especially in the "or trained" case.

And I've frequently heard people use "mentor-protege" together in this sense. Google gives 871,000 hits for "mentor protege" together, but only 785,000 for "mentor mentee". So it seems to me that mentor-protege IS found in some dictionaries, and it is at least equal to mentor-mentee in a descriptivist sense.
8.24.2007 11:50am
Anonymo the Anonymous:
As I recall, "protege" was used as the compliment of "mentor" throughout that Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George get mixed up in some kind of mentor-protege relationships involving that bad comedian Kenny Bania.
8.24.2007 12:12pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
Perhaps we should cast about for words phonetically similar to mentee and consider appending a new definition rather than protege. Maybe manatee. Or Maccabee.
8.24.2007 12:27pm
I think we should just use the word "smurf" in place of most of our nouns and verbs (particularly the verbs), the way they did on the show. Adding definitions to that word seems more acceptable to me than adding definitions to other words.
8.24.2007 12:30pm
Adeez (mail):
AnonVCfan: it's rare for a comment to make me crack up, so congratulations. That was smurfin' hilarious!!!
8.24.2007 12:43pm
IB Bill (mail) (www):
While I like M. Volokh's elegant exposition of the differences between protege, mentee and acolyte, I think the word protege is just fine, especially with an added definition.

However, the battle is long lost. It was lost when "proactive" replaced "initiative." Ugh.
8.24.2007 12:52pm
I still don't understand why a prescriptivist can't argue that a new coinage that has broad but not universal acceptance and appears in some but not all dictionaries "is not a word." The point is that a significant number of English speakers still do not accept it as a word. This is distinct from arguing that a universally accepted word should not have been acccepted. In such cases a prescriptive will admit that the "battle is lost" like IB Bill above.
8.24.2007 1:04pm
Peter B. Nordberg (mail) (www):
Isn't a dictionary entry an instance of "usage"? An important instance, even? Why should dictionary writers be uniquely disqualified from participating in the whole usage ecology? Indeed, mightn't they be thought especially qualified to float proposals about potentially useful conventions, so long as they're clear about what they're doing?

In empirical reality, prescription and usage stand in a symbiotic relationship. In his book The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester reports that in deference to Fowler, it was long held that "protagonist" could never take a plural — it being absurd, supposedly, to imagine that a story might have more than one "main" or "principal" character. Eventually, the OED stepped up and licensed the plural, and the world is now a more sensible place.
8.24.2007 1:30pm
DiverDan (mail):
I am also in the camp of the one who suggested modifying the definition of "protege" to fit - English is already filled with words that are ambiguous in meaning, or carry different connotations to different listeners. Ask 100 people to define, in their own words and as precisely as possible, the words "smart" and "intelligent", and I venture to guess that a majority (myself included) would define the two differently, and there would be a number of subtle but meaningful differences between how different folks understand these words. So, English has never been terribly precise (as if any language is!); what's the point -- we're not using the language to build a high tech machine with ultra-fine tolerances, we're trying to communicate ideas between beings with different (and sometimes incompatible) thought processes. As to the word "mentee", I, too, find it a little grating and very pretentious. I'm just fine with using the word "protege" to mean one who has been trained or advised by a mentor. And if you, as a listener, find my use of that word in place of "mentee" imprecise or misleading, I can live with that as the price of any imperfect form of communication like language.
8.24.2007 1:43pm
Sigivald (mail):
Maybe both should be combined into "Mentos", and they can make things fresh?
8.24.2007 1:45pm
Thanks, Adeez
8.24.2007 1:45pm
EconomicNeocon (mail):
There's precedent, of sorts, for the approach discussed in the lead post:

This Alice-in-Wonderland approach cannot be accepted. Exxon Corp. v. U.S., (1976) 37 AFTR 2d 76-730, 738, citing Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Dial Press Ed., p. 238.

FN 16: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Dial Press Ed., p. 238.
8.24.2007 2:01pm
Dictionaries serve two principal purposes, which require somewhat different criteria. One is to give you an appropriate word to say what you want to say; the other is to give you what may be meant by a word others use. For the second purpose, it’s useful for a dictionary to include any meaning one is likely to encounter; the size of the dictionary may determine how common a use must be before it is recorded, but for this purpose it makes no difference whether a particular meaning is (to the majority, or to the cultivated) wrong, or just rare. If you run across a word used with some meaning, right, wrong, or just unusual, it is useful to know what that meaning is. To restrict a dictionary to meanings “universally accepted,” or even to those accepted by a majority of language users, would deprive it of much of its value.

A dictionary can describe meanings found in use, and, for the benefit of those trying to choose a word, add a usage note to say that a particular meaning is rare, or found only in certain contexts, or slang, or considered uncultured, or something of the kind. The dictionary I have in my office, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, does a lot of this; see the entries for “comprise” and “infer,” where these issues often arise. (Some consider Webster’s attitude towards usage to be too relaxed, but it generally identifies issues, and the basic approach is sound.)

By the way, a dictionary writer isn’t “disqualified from participating in the whole usage ecology” (I’m setting aside the question of whether this is a standard use of “ecology,” since I think the thought is clear); but authority is not individual here, for either descriptive or prescriptive purposes. Prescriptive judgments are based on usage too, though the usage of some subgroup of language users. Nobody gets to set usage by fiat, even (for example) Fowler; a writer may make a proposal, but it doesn’t set a standard until it’s accepted as a standard.
8.24.2007 2:10pm
K Parker (mail):
IB Bill, an adjective replaced a noun? I think you're dispensing made-up history there.
8.24.2007 2:12pm
If a mentor directs a mentee, who guides a protégé?
8.24.2007 2:22pm
cirby (mail):
In practical terms, "mentor" and "barista."

I'll be the mentor, you go get me some coffee.
8.24.2007 2:24pm
IB Bill (mail) (www):
KParker: I was thinking in terms of the following:

"We need to be proactive here."

"We need to take initiative here."

Or "You need to be more proactive."

"You need to take more initiative."

FWIW, "proactive" doesn't seem as offensive to the ear anymore. You sorta get used to it. My objection is was this: It pretended to be a new concept, but it really wasn't.

I'm not sure I'm a prescriptivist. We don't have an Academie Anglais, after all. Or at least that's what I tell all my mentees :)
8.24.2007 2:58pm
LM (mail):

Maybe both should be combined into "Mentos" [...]

Submitting this question to trial by ordeal, I doused my protege in Diet Coke. After a brief (obviously supernatural) display that’s going to be a bitch getting off my ceiling, the poor fellow was gone.

God has spoken. “Mentos” it is.
8.24.2007 3:58pm
Chris B (mail):
Golem, I think that would 'patron'.

Most people would probably identify the recipient of mentoring as a 'protege'. If anything, we've truncated the meaning of 'patron' to a person who provides financial support, possibly because 'patron' is a synonym for 'customer'. 'Mentor' has become the word used to describe someone who champions a subordinate's career in ways that aren't exclusively financial. In the process the need for 'mentee' to distinguish the kind of support that is being received has been lost.

I have to disagree with Eugene somewhat. I think we're on our way to making the 'non-financial supporter' meaning of patron archaic. It's only the prescriptivist bent of most dictionary writers that keeps them from recognizing the changing meaning of the words.
8.24.2007 4:15pm