The English language is alive. I’m cool with that. No matter how I might feel privately, I won’t ruin anyone’s day over using impact as a verb. I’m don’t care if ask is universally pronounced as “axe” a hundred years from now (and not only because at age 132 I will be unlikely to care about much). I fully support Tina Fey’s creation of the word blorft–a person as obviously blorft as myself has lots of occasions to use it. As long as no one gets hurt, by all means do things for the “lulz.” But you know what’s just a bridge too far? The fake word mentee.
I know, I know. It’s in the dictionary. What I really mean is not that the word is fake but that it is an abomination. Mentor is the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Old Mentor takes Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, under his wing and imparts to the young man all kinds of wisdom.* When you call a teacher or an older colleague a mentor, you invoke a metaphor that compares the relationship between the older and the younger person to the relationship between Homer’s characters. You are not invoking a duality like employer and employee, trainer and trainee, detainer and detainee, because–please hear me on this–there is no English verb to ment. Try it out. Does any of this sound correct to you?
- Richard Wright mented a young Ralph Ellison through the early years of his writing career, but the two eventually parted ways.
- Haymitch is the only victor available in District 12, so he has to ment both Katniss and Peeta.
- Though she no longer practiced medicine, she enjoyed menting her young colleagues.
- I couldn’t face going to my high school reunion, so instead I stayed home and got mented.
Puh-lease. There is a perfectly functional verb to be used in those sentences (well, maybe not the last one), and the verb is to mentor. So why not call for the use of the word mentoree? Well, cause then you’d need the word mentorer, and this whole thing is enough of a haggis as it is. I don’t think the term Telemachus is going to catch on any time soon, but we could call the relationship that of mentor to mentored. That would be absolutely correct and would not sound especially weird.
When you use the word mentee, you just sound like you are making a slur against manatees. I can practically hear one of those racist dipwads that’s always misappropriating Chris Rock’s old standup routine trolling, “Aw yeah. There are two kinds of sea cows. There are manatees…and there are mentees.” Oh, I should warn you that once you start thinking of it that way, it gets hard to un-think it. The alternate meaning sure puts these sentences, culled from the OED, in a new light:
- “What is the typical economics class but a contact between the conservative teacher and his mentees?”
- “An older crafty male mentor uses Svengali-like power to mesmerize a young female mentee.”
- “Although Garrison doesn’t think that mentors need to be best friends with their mentees, he does think that both partners should feel simpatico on some level.”
So before you thoughtlessly slap a suffix on a nonexistent verb, think for a minute about how you sound. If for no other reason, the manatees deserve better.
*Mostly. Sometimes Mentor is just a human suit for the goddess Athena.