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"Is Not a Word":

This comment on the recent thread on misspelled phrases reminds me of one of my pet peeves:

I find "mentee" so offensive that I disparage its usage at every opportunity. 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. Resumes containing this word require no further review. I recently returned a fundraising letter in its business reply envelope with the word circled and the written comment, "This is not a word." I reserve such vitriol and summary dismissal for this error alone. This is because it is what might be called a Homeric error. And I don't mean Homer Simpson. Please warn your students against this fatally discrediting usage.

Here's one thing I find so offensive that I disparage its usage at every opportunity: The use of a phrase "is not a word" -- which you'd think would have the standard meaning of, well, "is not a word" -- to mean "should not be a word" or "is a word that annoys me." English speakers use "mentee," and use it often enough that it's gotten into the OED (attested for over 40 years), as well as the Random House Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary. It is, which is to say "is," a word, which is to say "a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning" -- with the function and the meaning attested by the authorities in the field (dictionaries).

I have nothing against complaints that some word or phrase is inelegant or confusing, or admonitions to students that using some word or phrase will lead some readers to think the less of them. The earlier thread was all about collecting data for such admonitions.

But those complaints should, I think, be put that way. They should not be made by claiming that something is not a word when it is a word under any sensible and common definition of the term "word."

(Note that there may be an exception when the claim is clearly hyperbole, but here this exception doesn't apply: A reader may well assume that "mentee" is actually an uncommon error, rather than a usage that is common enough that it has been recognized by lexicographers as a normal part of the English language.)

63 Comments
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.

54 Comments
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.

20 Comments
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.

49 Comments
Volokh Commenters Get Noticed:

Someone at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution liked our "mentee" thread -- and quoted a substantial chunk, all from the commenters:

he verbal warfare broke out late last month on "The Volokh Conspiracy," a blog run by UCLA law Professor Eugene Volokh. The squabble began during a discussion of misspellings, when one poster took off on the word "mentee."

I find "mentee" [said he] so offensive that I disparage its usage at every opportunity. 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. Resumes containing this word require no further review. I reserve such vitriol and summary dismissal for this error alone. This is because it is what might be called a Homeric error. And I don't mean Homer Simpson.

Yankev's post: What else do you call the subject of a mentor?

I still vote for protege.

Mentee sounds too much like the endangered sea cows that inhabit Florida's coastal waters.

Was that your mentee I saw you with at lunch?

No, that's not the person I ment.

Uggh. Mentee may be a word, but so is puke.

Ex parte McCardle's post: How about "lickspittle," a great old word which has fallen into unwarranted desuetude?

AK: I might recognize "mentee" as a word, but I will never recognize "Mentos" as a food.

James Fulford: What else do you call the subject of a mentor?

Telemachus?

Tim Dowling: My recollection is that during the Bush I Administration, EPA's chief of staff issue a memo banning the use of the word "proactive" because, in his words, "it's not a word." Evidently, he didn't like it, word-wise speaking. By the way, mentoring has its own month, January. IT'S THE LAW. Go forth and ment.

NaG: I propose that "the" is not a word. It means nothing. There is nothing about "the" that adds meaning to a subsequent word. "The pig" has no different meaning than simply "pig"; "the" can simply be inferred from the noun itself.

BobH: Eliminate article!!

JohnEMack: Would other passive forms be better? How about "mentess" for female epigones? Or "mented," which permits us to call former students "demented."

Good work, folks!

8 Comments