An eminent US scholar in mentoring recently said at a conference “There is no such word as mentee!”, arguing instead for the word protégé. By the same logic, of course, there is no such word as protégé (French, from which it might be presumed to have originated, has a verb, protégér, from which come protecteur and protectrice, but no noun for the person being protected.) In reality, of course, words become real when they are accepted and used, either generally or within a specific context – regardless of their origin or “legitimacy” (the assumptions people make and try to impose about the rules of language, often based on misunderstanding of how language evolves). Another acid test is “Is it in the dictionary?” – which both mentee and protégé are.

Equally, a concept typically does not exist until we have words to describe it. Some isolated tribes have no concept of mathematics, because their language has only one, two and many. The evolution of word and meaning is a circular, systemic process, not a linear one!

The word mentor as a noun comes from the generalisation of the characteristics of Mentor, in the Odyssey, when he was impersonated by Athena, the goddess of wisdom. In English, nouns frequently become verbs and vice versa (for example, to boycott). When and where the word mentor first became used as a noun is unclear, but its usefulness is such that it rapidly became accepted. Linguistic pedants might say it should have been Mentoror – but that was never going fly! Both that and the word mentoree, an attempt to follow perceived grammatical rules for converting verbs to nouns, failed to gain traction, because they break one of the practical rules of linguistic development – the instinct to simplify.

Mentee evolved as the foil to mentor – an obvious if not grammatically correct comparator. It also has symmetry with the origins of Mentor, the character, where the element “ment” means mind, thinking, or reflection (as in the English word mental). So, a mentor is someone, who stimulates another to think; and a mentee is someone, who is helped to think. This modern concept of a mentor comes not from Ancient Greece, however, but from the dialogues between Athena/Mentor and Telemachus written by the 18th century French cleric Fenelon, whose writings can be seen as the starting point for all modern literature and thinking on leadership development.

But language continues to evolve and words, which have a positive meaning in one culture or context, can have a neutral or negative connotation in another. They also change in meaning as they are co-opted for different purposes (the word “gay” is a classic example). There are therefore no “correct” words to describe the mentoring relationship – only words that are convenient within a particular social context at a particular time. And these words may themselves only be temporarily useful, because changing context will require them to adapt or die. Such is the story of language and its role in evolving human thought!

David Clutterbuck, 2017

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