language corner

Mentee Fresh

Some notes on “protégés," "mentors," and manatees
February 23, 2011

When you have a “mentor,” what are you (aside from in need of advice)? Before the sixties, you probably would have been called a “protégé,” or “protégée” if you were female. But today, you’re more likely to be called a “mentee,” regardless of your sex.

The word “mentee” is not in most dictionaries, and some usage authorities decry it as an unnecessary, and less elegant, replacement for “protégé.” Tough. It’s here to stay.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls “mentee” an American word, and traces its first usage to 1965. But “mentee” had been used for many years before that, primarily in academic publications.

In 1916, for example, a report by a Dartmouth professor said that the University of Michigan’s School of Engineering had a system: “Each instructor (called a ‘mentor’) has ten students (called ‘mentees’) and retains the same ones throughout the course.” “Mentee” appeared occasionally for the next fifty years until it caught fire, though even then not without controversy: in 1944, a report in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects discussed a system to pair candidates with more experienced architects. “One of our group even wanted to describe the candidate as a mentee!” the article exclaimed incredulously.

A “protégé” by any other name may not smell as sweet, but please don’t call yourself a “manatee” (as has been done), gentle beast though it is.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.