Words and Dictionaries:

Well, it turns out that some people aren't joking in endorsing this suggestion:

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?

Recall the context: 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). Then came the above quote.

Wow. So here we have a word ("mentee") that has been around for several decades, that is common enough to be listed in several leading dictionaries, and that is easily understandable (especially in context), both because it's not uncommon and because it fits a common pattern of English word formation. Now I'm not saying comprehensibility is enough; "udnerstadnable" is probably understandable, too, but I'm not advising you to use it. But surely comprehensibility is pretty important.

But some people disapprove of "mentee," whether because it's a back formation that doesn't correspond to an actual verb "to ment," or because they just think it's ugly. So instead, the suggestion is to add a definition to the dictionary.

What exactly do people think will happen when this definition is added? Will it, like domain name registry entries, get automatically propagated over the following 48 hours through the minds of English speakers? Will there be public service announcements on TV telling people, "Please remember that starting 2 am Sunday, the word 'protege' will also mean someone who gets merely advice and not patronage or support"?

No: The same people who today hear "protege" and think not just someone who is being mentored, but rather someone who is being politically backed, will keep on thinking this. Perhaps over time, some of them will look up the word in the dictionary, learn the new definition, and slowly spread the definition to listeners (in contexts in which the listeners will recognize the new definition, rather than just being confused). Perhaps, and only over many years. In the meantime, the extra definition in the dictionary will in no way affect what the word actually communicates to listeners. The new meaning will not be properly comprehended.

On top of that, imagine what would happen even if the suggestion worked: We'd take a word that usually has a moderately crisp definition ("a person under the patronage, protection, or care of someone interested in his or her career or welfare"), and add to it another, materially different definition (a person who is simply receiving advice) -- thus making the word ambiguous (or at least more ambiguous). Now sometimes words do acquire new meanings that make them ambiguous, and often there's not much to be done about that. But do we really want to deliberately create extra ambiguity? Is an ambiguous "protege" really better than an unambiguous "protege" plus an unambiguous (even if ugly-sounding to some, or etymologically impure to some) "mentee," to the point that we should deliberately choose making "protege" ambiguous?

Third, and this returns in some measure to the comprehensibility point, authors of dictionary have a certain professional responsibility to readers. They should inform the readers of what a word in fact means when English speakers generally use it. They could, if they want to, inform the readers of what meanings are socially condemned, or even what meanings the dictionary authors think are in some sense "the best." But can it be right for them just to add a meaning that English speakers don't generally use, simply on the theory that English would somehow be a more elegant language if English speakers did use such a meaning?

I think that if we read a dictionary and learned a definition that, it turned out, was just the authors' own pet project rather than an actual current meaning of the word, we'd rightly feel duped. The dictionary would have made us less likely to communicate effectively rather than more.

Finally, I think all this illustrates a broader point about words and dictionaries. Dictionaries are not the language; they are useful snapshots of the language. Prescriptivists might argue that dictionaries should condemn certain aspects of the language. And indeed dictionaries do in some measure mold the language. But no-one, prescriptivist or descriptivist, should assume that the language will change just because a definition is added to the dictionary, and no-one should accept a dictionary that simply invents new definitions that the authors think might be useful. Drawing a new street on a map won't actually change the city. Adding a new definition to the dictionary won't actually change the language.

SailorDave (www):
Eugene, why do you feel so strongly about this? I don't understand your point yet. I am a descriptivist like you, but when google gives more hits to "mentor-protege" than to "mentor-mentee", when common usages like Seinfeld use protege to mean someone with a mentor, and when Wikipedia uses mentee and protege as synonyms, I don't understand why a descriptivist should oppose the use of the word "protege" so strongly.

Are you saying that it's ok for popular usage to create new words, but it's not OK for popular usage to shift the meaning of existing words?
8.24.2007 4:12pm
Now that schoolboys and girls are called "students", the word "pupil" is released for "mentees". And there is precedent. What more can you want?
8.24.2007 4:27pm
Don Meaker (mail):
My least favorite word is "proactive" because it was invented when the cross bar to the first "e" in "preactive" fell off the viewgraph.

Proactive was a form of mental retardation, where what you already knew confused or blocked new knowledge. Preactive was a counterpart to Reactive.

We have too many proactive politicians.
8.24.2007 4:27pm
Fco (www):
Often words will acquire a broader meaning simply because people don't want to bother to understand the correct definition and use it in the right, or look up the proper term for what the meaning they are trying to convey. And I'm guilty of that as well. Words lose their meaning this way.

"Biannual" has been so used to mean "twice a year" or "every two years" that it is now essentially meaningless.
8.24.2007 4:32pm
bittern (mail):
Fco: Don't worry about losing a few nice old words. We're making plenty new ones fast.
8.24.2007 4:40pm
IB Bill (mail) (www):
Thank you, Don. I said something similar on the thread about the odious "proactive."

That said, I'm not giving up on semi-annual.
8.24.2007 4:45pm
IB Bill (mail) (www):
Oops. I said something similar on the other thread about the odious proactive. Was missing "other". Must proofread better.
8.24.2007 4:46pm
bittern (mail):
Don, mostly people that say "proactive" are advertising their pseudo-executive qualities, which is naturally annoying. But now I can't remember what word it might have replaced. If you want to lobby against it, it needs a very good alternative. The specialty definition you cite seems very confusing; it's not easy to see how "pro" or "active" relates to blocking new knowledge. So, it's got a pretty weak defensive position in the word wars.
8.24.2007 4:46pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
SailorDave: If I thought that "protege" really did generally mean "mentee," without the connotation of "under the patronage of," I surely wouldn't fight it (though I'd still see "mentee" as a valuable alternative). My sense, though, is that while one can certainly speak of mentor/protege relationships, one would generally be understood as speaking of patronage relationships and not just of advice-giving relationships.]

Don Meaker: Any pointers to the etymology you give? The OED, for instance, doesn't take this view. Or am I missing the joke?

Fco: Careful with that "now" -- the OED attests biannual for once every two years back to 1750 (at least using the spelling "bienniel"), but biannual for twice a year back to 1877. Other "bi[time]ly" are attested as "every two" back to 1843 and as "twice in a" back to 1854. So the ambiguity has been around for well over a century, and possibly back to the earliest usages of at least some of the "bi-" words.

Dearieme: "Released" isn't quite the way these things work. Perhaps a Universally Obeyed Language Czar, if there were one, could say "pupil will now mean someone who is mentored, and no-one will think at first of children." But this doesn't mean that we ordinary English speakers can simply use "pupil" about 25-year-old professionals whom one is informally advising giving informal advice; if we do use it that way, we're likely to get unwanted connotations -- or, in some instances, total failures of comprehension.
8.24.2007 4:48pm
I'm still not convinced "protege" is all that different from the meaning people are trying to assign to "mentee." I would expect a mentor to look out for the welfare of the... whatever. Not necessarily by pulling political strings or manipulating the system (although this is certainly possible), but certainly by helping the... whatever... compete more effectively.

One-on-one instructors in non-career areas have other names, like advisor and counselor and guru.
8.24.2007 4:49pm
David4 (mail):
Whoa, whoa, whoa.

"the official dictionaries"

English is not like Spanish or French, where there is an official Academy of the language that publishes an official dictionary purporting to describe the correct iteration of the language. This suggestion doesn't even make sense, since there are no official dictionaries (not even the OED).
8.24.2007 4:49pm
I'm getting quite sick of "the OED lists a reference back to 18__" as an argument in favor of the legitimacy of a word or phrase. So the first person to screw up the useage of a word did it a long time ago. So freaking what? If someone wrote pasghetti in 1705, it's still not the right word for "spaghetti."
8.24.2007 5:06pm
IB Bill (mail) (www):
bittern: I'd take the initiative on finding you a replacement word for proactive, but I'm too lazy.
8.24.2007 5:07pm
DiverDan (mail):
Just why are you getting so worked up about this word? First, not everyone understands the term "protege" with the level of precision you seem to demand; I myself have never thought that it was necessary for a protege to get sponsorship or financial support - training, advice, even just the proper introductions could be enough. Now, you tell me that my understanding of that word was incomplete. Well, I'm not surprised - if I have a fair understanding of just one quarter of all of the million plus words in the English Language, I have a vocabulary 5 times greater than the average speaker of English. The fact that English is an imprecise language, full of ambiguity, shouldn't shock, astound, or appall anyone -- that is the nature of all human language. You can't fix it, so why worry? And as to changing the dictionaries, that is not only unnecessary, but almost certainly wouldn't alter the usage. It is usage and understanding that controls the meaning of a word, not what is written in reference books that only a tiny minority of the educated elite refer to in any event.
8.24.2007 5:10pm
Bob McHenry (mail):
"I think that if we read a dictionary and learned a definition that, it turned out, was just the authors' own pet project rather than an actual current meaning of the word, we'd rightly feel duped."

Or we might notice that we've been reading Dr. Johnson's dictionary. To wit:

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.
8.24.2007 5:11pm
LM (mail):

Drawing a new street on a map won't actually change the city.

You might think so, but that type of quaint fidelity to logic is so Second Millennium. It marks you as someone in, but not truly of the blogosphere. Ideological determinism is the new common sense.
8.24.2007 5:11pm
bittern (mail):

Eugene, why do you feel so strongly about this? I don't understand your point yet . . . I don't understand why a descriptivist should oppose the use of the word "protege" so strongly . . . Are you saying that it's ok for popular usage to create new words, but it's not OK for popular usage to shift the meaning of existing words?

EV's a crazy libertarian and he gets dangerously agitated when self-appointed language police stop a citizen who's using an unregistered linguistic vehicle, particularly when said vehicle was not engendering confusion and more particularly when it was offering some precision not available among its alternatives. I didn't hear him say he OPPOSED the use of "protege", and I didn't hear a position on the natural migration of the meaning of words, SailorDave. I also don't think he likes the idea of deliberately de-precisioning terminology, but hey, I'm not EV, so I could be wrong on that one.
8.24.2007 5:14pm
DiverDan (mail):

"only a tiny minority of the educated elite refer to in any event."

oops -- really meant that only a tiny minority of the population, consisting almost exclusively of the educated elite, refer to the dictionaries for guidance and support on usage. The vast majority of english speakers use whatever words they know, and pick up new vocabulary from the usage of others.

My point was that dictionaries REFLECT usage, they do not CONTROL it.
8.24.2007 5:17pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
DJR: First, recall that I cited the OED to establish that what fco said was happening "now" had been happening for at least a century. Surely for that the OED is pretty good evidence.

Second, what do you mean by "legitimacy," "screw up," and "right word"? If actual usage by actual English speakers -- including, in many instances, actual English speakers who are rather more august and respected than we are -- is not the test of "legitimacy," then what is?

Third, as it happens the OED and other dictionaries won't include occasional misspellings (or else they'd be even thicker than they now are); "pasghetti" isn't going to be there. They'll include a word when they find that it is fairly well-established in actual usage. And if that turns out to be so, for instance when both "judgement" and "judgment" are well-established, or both "ensure" and "insure," what basis is there to say that one is not "legitimate," is "screw[ed] up," or is not "the right word"?
8.24.2007 5:18pm
BobH (mail):
Another terrific discussion. But a lot of commenters (commentators? comment-mongers?) are missing what I think is Eugene's point. This is not about whether "mentee" means more or less the same as "protege"; that's a sort of minor quibble. It's about what language IS, and how language WORKS.
8.24.2007 5:32pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Count me another one puzzled by EV's discomfort with the "mentor"/"protégé" pairing. Maybe it's just that "mentor" itself is used differently in different fields. In the classical-music world, at least, "mentors" almost always have "protégés." The pair of words is used to depict something like a student-teacher relationship, but one in which the student is already operating on a very high artistic level.
8.24.2007 5:34pm
Joshua Macy:
The funniest thing about that suggestion is that if that's the way language worked we wouldn't be having this discussion, since "mentee" is already in the dictionaries.
8.24.2007 5:39pm
BobH (mail):
Who you gonna believe? Me? Or that lyin' dictionary?
8.24.2007 5:41pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Michelle: It might well turn a good deal on the field. Law firms often pair up a more senior lawyer with a junior associate or summer associate, and call the more senior lawyer a "mentor." In these situations, the more senior lawyer isn't expected to be the junior's patron (there may be such a person in the junior's department, but that's separate from the mentorship) or to educate the junior in any serious sense. Rather, he's expected mostly to give the junior advice about how things work at the firm.

Some law schools do the same with alumni who act as mentors for law students.
8.24.2007 5:54pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Forgot to add:

Re the artistic mentor/protégé relationship, check out the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

EV, just out of curiosity, what would you call a person who has one or more protégés, given that "mentor" is evidently out for you? (I think someone asked this in an earlier thread, but I don't recall its being answered.)
8.24.2007 5:55pm
I also must object that Eugene's claimed distinction that a mentee receives advice while a protégé receives patronage and support actually exist. For example, in this week's Economist there is a profile of Michael O'Leary of Ryanair. Here is an extract: "Sent to the airline in 1988 by his mentor Tony Ryan, the founder of Guinness Peat Aviation, the largest aircraft-leasing firm in the world before its dramatic downfall in 1992, Mr O'Leary was told to do whatever was necessary to make Ryanair profitable. Driven by a deal that would pay him 25% of any profits above £2m, he set about reducing costs with dogged determination."

Sounds like Mr. O'Leary was getting more than advice, no?
8.24.2007 6:09pm
I want the the disputed definition of protege added not because I want to change its usage, but because it reflects the usage I most commonly hear. Then again, I hang out with a lot of Seinfeld fans.

As an aside, has anyone ever thought about how the word "manure" needs its image rehabilitated. I'm mean, it's the sound "ma" (which is good), with a "newer" after it, which is also good. "Ma" - "newer." Yadda, yadda...
8.24.2007 6:10pm
As for those confused, as it stands:

Proteges have mentors
Not all mentors have proteges (some just have mentees).
8.24.2007 6:11pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
I, too have thought that a true mentor does more than just give advice, but in the context of ersatz mentors assigned to associates in big firms, perhaps the associates are not proteges.

In fiction, at least, polices officers sometimes have "Rabbis". I wonder what the paralele term for Rabbi is ...
8.24.2007 6:14pm
I propose that we now add to our loan words this beauty:
'Stavlennik' STAHF-leen-neek')

The pairing is now "mentor/stavlennik." And it is so because *I called it first*. And I further declare that people who accent the second syllable have screwed up the pronunciation.

Next issue?
8.24.2007 6:17pm

"Newer" is good? Not for us Burkeans. But Burke never played much of a role on Seinfeld. I think Drew Carey might have done some episodes on him, but I don't remember all that well.
8.24.2007 6:19pm
Fco (www):

Fco: Careful with that "now" -- the OED attests biannual for once every two years back to 1750 (at least using the spelling "bienniel"), but biannual for twice a year back to 1877. Other "bi[time]ly" are attested as "every two" back to 1843 and as "twice in a" back to 1854. So the ambiguity has been around for well over a century, and possibly back to the earliest usages of at least some of the "bi-" words.

Sure thing EV. But if you were to receive a note stating that an event occurs biannually, without an added explanation on what the informer "means" by biannual, you are still just as uninformed as you were before you were notified. The broad ambiguity of the word renders it meaningless. The note might as well be blank.

Either this word gets a specific meaning, or remove it from the OED, it's just taking up space.
8.24.2007 6:47pm
- Biannual and semiannual are synonyms, meaning twice a year. A biennial event takes place after two years. I shun biannual to avoid the inevitable confusion.

- I have heard protégé used to describe a person inspired by the "patron," without any formal relationship. This follower successfully perpetuates the "patron's" ideas.

- A law enforcement officer may have a "rabbi." It's an informal relationship falling somewhere along the mentor-advisor-guru-patron continuum.
8.24.2007 7:12pm
Paddy O. (mail):
I much prefer new words to added definitions. A new relationship or reality or context or whatever that has a unique definition should have a unique way of describing it. That is precision. Otherwise we have a language in which at best we are imprecise in what we are describing.

I guess, in a way, this hinges on whether a person likes words or if they like order and want even language to fit into their self-accepted pattern of usage.

I think we should even start a movement. One word, one definition!
8.24.2007 7:16pm
Counterfactual (mail):
I think Eugene's 4:54 pm post makes clear what is happening here. In his specialized environment, mentor/protege carries the import of 'pulling strings'. For the rest of us, who get our meanings from Seinfield, there is no such connotation. Eugene does not like this (or does not believe it), and so he is going a little crazy trying to swat down those of us using the word protege in this widely accepted way.
8.24.2007 9:00pm
JR Walker (mail):
WIttgenstein had it right: words are just tools that we use, it's folly to argue about meaning. I am as peavish as anyone about using words that sound wrong (e.g. agreeance and supposably) but if someone uses the word "mentee" to mean someone who is mentored - and it is entirely comprehensible - who am I to tell him no?
8.25.2007 12:04am
I've always used "the mentor" and "the mentored".

Seems to work just fine for me and I don't see the need for a word like "mentee" OR a new definition for "protege". But, like JR Walker, I don't really mind if someone else does.

So knock yourselves out.
8.25.2007 1:39am
Syd Henderson (mail):
Lindsey Lohan, meanwhile, has to spend a day in jail. She actually got two days, but got credit for time served for one day.
8.25.2007 2:00am
Christopher (www):
Anyone who has followed Eugene's series of posts on this question should understand that he does not wish to, as Counterfactual states, "swat down those of us using the word protege in this widely accepted way." In fact, just the opposite: Eugene argues that our conception of the English language ought to follow usage and not the other way around. If Eugene were convinced that using the word protege in this sense were widespread (which he does not seem to be), clearly there would be no issue.

The issue, instead, is that some who object to the word "mentee" offer the word "protege" as a substitute, not--and here is the distinction--because it carries that meaning already but because we ought to force it to carry that meaning. What Eugene objects to is the idea that, if we find a particular word, like "mentee," to be inelegant or ugly, we can simply erase it from the dictionary and apply its meaning to a word we find acceptable. The suggestion Eugene criticizes is not that protege means "the receiver of advice," but that, if it doesn't, well, we ought to make it mean that anyhow.

Eugene is completely right: This is simply not the way language works, and it is Draconian notions of prescriptivism--not "incorrect usage"--that we ought to rail against.
8.25.2007 3:30am
Tony Tutins (mail):
To me, the word "protege" implies someone in need of protection, and thus naive and dewy-eyed, a babe in the woods, not a competent professional-in-the-making. This raises the question of why has the powerful person decided to protect the protege. The most obvious answer is that the patron is either receiving or hoping to receive sexual favors. Thus, I'd rather be a mentee, getting advice from time to time, than a protege.
8.25.2007 6:31am
"In fiction, at least, polices officers sometimes have "Rabbis". I wonder what the paralele term for Rabbi is ..."

8.25.2007 7:54am
The womens' college adjacent to my undergrad called their new students "mentees", who were advised by upperclasswomen "mentors". Our own college used "sponsor"/"frosh" and sneered at the "manatees" -- and unfortunately I can't get that thought out of my mind whenever I hear the word "mentee".

Just wanted to share.
8.25.2007 11:32am
Counterfactual (mail):
Christopher - Right now there are two widespread words people are using to to denote someone receiving continuing advice from a more knowlegeable elder: protege and mentee. Personally, I use protege, but have no problem with people using mentee. Some people are opposed to mentee becasue it is not in the dictionary and they do not want it added to the dictionary. Eugene (rightly, imho) says that since form follows function, this is a silly objection. And if people are using the word mentee, it sould be added to the dictionary.

But then he turns around and is horrified at the idea that we add the a definition to protege in the dictionary that reflects how it is also, now, being commonly used. I agree that if he agreed protege was being commonly used this way, he would be ok with adding that definition. But by the same token, if the people who are opposed to recogonizing mentee as a word were to agree it is a word, they would of course drop their opposition to it also. The question is why is Eugene so opposed to recognizing this common usage of protege (which is a parallel question to asking why the people who don't like mentee are so opposed to that word)? And, as my original post notes, he seems to have given us the answer. It is not in line with the usage his law firm follows, therefore this 'unlawful' usage of protege must not be recognized. It seems to me this is very much in line with the people who don't like mentee because some authority figure (an old high school English teacher?) told them it is not a word.
8.25.2007 11:35am
Colin Fraizer (mail):
Since the VC has become a language blog, please solve this important dispute.

My wife is a manager at a pharmaceutical company. Her superior is a terrifically competent woman who has her fantastic advice and guidance over her career at the company.

Should she refer to this woman as her "mentrix" or in PC 2007, is "femtor" a more appropriate term?
8.25.2007 11:45am
Christopher (www):
But the suggestion being opposed is not that dictionary makers ought to add this definition to "protege" because it reflects usage, but that dictionary makers ought to add this definition in order to sculpt language in a way that avoids using inelegant words.

I think Eugene has two basic objections: 1.) To the thought that by modifying dictionaries we can change the definitions of words to suit our purpose, and 2.) That even if we could, it would be desirable to muddle up the (supposed) definition of "protege" and do away with "mentee," when both already (supposedly) occupy a narrow band of meaning.

In short, your characterization that "he turns around and is horrified at the idea that we add the a definition to protege in the dictionary that reflects how it is also, now, being commonly use" fails to grasp exactly what the issue is.
8.25.2007 11:53am
Counterfactual (mail):
Christopher - I think the problem here is that we are mixing up 2 different questions: 1-Should dictionaries attempt to sculpt the language, and 2-Is protege a good substitute for what mentee is supposed to do. This thread started out as discussing number 1, but then Eugene himself changed it to number 2. After all, how Eugene's law firm uses the word protege does not really impact on 1, but does have a big impact on 2. That is why I did not make my comment on Eugene's original post but only after his follow up comment. Would you agree that Eugene's 4:54 pm post is not an argument against action by the 'dictionary authories' but instead an argument against using the word protege in a certain way, with him using the authority of his law firm to argue against using protege in this way? That is what my post was responding to.

Your last post, itself, argues that mentee is the better word since using protege in this regard 'muddies' up its meaning. A good argument, perhaps, but you can't simulteously post arguments about why mentee is the better choice and claim we are not discussing at all what word is the better or more commonly used choice. Why did you feel the need to argue that mentee is the better word if that is completely off the point? Might it be because the tone of Eugene's discussion shows it is not off the point at all?
8.25.2007 12:30pm
EV, I'm not sure about your objection to "released". I suppose that now few of us cant boats over to repair them, "careened" has been released to mean "careered". Unless it's just the result of a combination of a spelling mistake with gross ignorance that seems to have become a standard American usage.
8.25.2007 1:23pm
fishbane (mail):
Late to the party, but I love the notion that Someone Should Do Something to fix this word by officially putting it in the dictionary. How very French.

I wonder what hurdles one would need to go through to be officially allowed to use the term 'vlog'? Are there additional forms required to verb it?
8.25.2007 10:41pm
GKong3 (mail):
The term 'mentor' comes from a proper noun. To wit, Mentor happened to be

Odysseus's trusted counselor, in whose guise Athena became the guardian and teacher of Telemachus

So yes, 'mentor' has an 'advisor' connotation to it. But I can tell you that many churches (including mine) use the term to include a sort of accountability issue as well.

What's wrong with 'mentoree'? It doesn't jar as much as mentee, to be sure.
8.28.2007 7:16am