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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Mentors’ fulsome menting of mentees: When should we try to preserve words’ original understanding?

At the urging of my daughters who try to keep my jowl-quivering pedantry within reasonable bounds, I have resisted blogging about usage and grammar. My repeated encounters with the “mentee” and “fulsome,” however, have aggravated me into asking a simple yet general question about English usage: When should we try to preserve the original understanding of words?

Consider the evolution of the word “mentee” from the Greek name “Mentor.” “Mentee,” of course, is barely a word at all. (My 1987 edition of the OED haughtily does not recognize its existence). First used in 1965 according to Merriman-Webster, it is an extension of the metaphor “Mentor,” the name of Telemachus’ elderly friend and guide in the Odyssey. Like other proper nouns in Homeric epics (for instance, Stentor, Myrmidons, Meander, etc.), “Mentor” is frequently used as a metaphor by people eager to show off their Classical learning. It means any older person who uses their greater experience to guide a younger protégé in a profession, politics, or life more generally. As anyone knows who can walk the walk and talk the talk, nouns easily switch to verbs in English, so it is a small and legitimate step to speak of “mentoring” someone.

“Mentee” arises from a misunderstanding about the second syllable of “Mentor.” The metaphorical origins of old man Mentor being long forgotten, it is easy to infer that the second syllable is a suffix converting a verb into a noun that signifies the performer of the verb, much as “er” in “employer” signifies “one who employs.”. This invites the coining of the term “mentee” to signify someone who is assisted by a mentor. Of course, the next logical step is to invent a new verb, “to ment,” which would presumably signify the act of serving as a mentor for a mentee. But no one (to my knowledge) has taken this step: Ordinary usage treats “to mentor” as the complete verb while simultaneously and illogically also referring to “mentees” rather than “mentorees.”

Should we try to arrest the evolution of “mentor” away from its roots by campaigning for the English-speaking world to think anew about Mentor’s kindliness towards Telemachus? Or should we encourage a happy trend and lobby for the new verb “to ment”? After the jump, I lobby for the latter position, using the word “fulsome” to illustrate the following anti-originalist principle of English usage: Preserving the original meaning of a word is important only insofar as doing so increases the granularity of the language.

My anti-originality preference follows from the practical idea that the point of words is to distinguish one state of the world from another. Words, in this sense, are like screwdrivers in a toolkit: One needs a lot of different shapes and sizes of screwdrivers to deal with various screws that one encounters, and, so too, one needs a lot of subtly different words to capture subtle differences in meaning. If the original meaning of a word, therefore, refers to a special state of the world that other words do not already address, then one should campaign to reinstate that meaning, so one will have a complete set of tools in one’s toolbox. Otherwise, move on! Let the original meaning lapse into desuetude (that last word, by the way, being a great example of a non-duplicable word, “obsolescence” being not quite the same).

Consider, for instance, “fulsome.” Although the OED (again, my 1987 edition) tells us that it has been used to signify “abundant, plentiful, or full,” its primary meaning, I believe, is “tending to cloy from surfeit,” “tending to cause nausea,” or “wearisome from excess or repetition.” “Fulsome praise,” for instance, is praise so excessive that it nauseates the listener. I increasingly hear and read, however, “fulsome” used to mean “complete” or “full,” especially in contexts where the speaker wants to convey a sort of pretentious solemnity that would be lost using the simpler word “full.” (For instance, “I am being fulsome in my testimony”). Using “fulsome” to mean “complete” or “full” erodes the resolving granularity of English language, at least if such usage crowds out the distinctive meaning of the term as "nauseating by excess." We already have enough words to signify “complete” or “full” – for instance, “complete” and “full.”

By contrast, we do not already have another handy two-syllable term to refer to “nauseating by excess.” Pretentiously throwing in that extra syllable by using “fulsome” when one simply means “full,” therefore, can cause the English language to use one of its screwdrivers, because such usage will tend to drive out the word's more specialized meaning. (Indeed, no one would ever use "fulsome" to mean "full" if they were aware of the specialized meaning). Over-using “fulsome” to mean "full" is like using a screwdriver as a crowbar at risk of snapping the more slender tool. It is not just sloppy: It is vandalism.

By contrast, converting “mentoring” to “menting” sacrifices no granularity. True, we lose the link between Mentor of the Odyssey and mentors in our day-to-day life. But this link was lost long ago in any case: Not enough people are raised reading the Odyssey to appreciate the metaphor. (Hence, the otherwise absurd term "mentee"). By contrast, if “to mentor” becomes “to ment,” then we preserve logical consistency, making the English language easier to learn and more attractive to use.

There are admittedly counter-arguments that my “preserve granularity” principle overlooks. There is, after all, no such thing as a perfect synonym: Will not my granularity principle logically lead to the loving preservation of every old usage on the theory that no word is ever truly redundant?

This post, however, is already fulsome in its length, so I will end by urging you to ment your mentees to write complete but not fulsome prose.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 4, 2017 at 08:01 AM | Permalink


Mentor/mentee is the product of choosing regularity in form over historically accurate etymology. (Can a wise old aunt be called a mentrix unironically now?) It is one thing to regularlize grammatical forms (even Tolkein didn't try to retain dwarrows as the irregular plural of dwarf), but regularizing vocabulary brings on hazards. Chinese writing is peppered with this sort of ahistorical adaptation, to the point that every Chinese character has two etymologies: the real one supported by modern archeology, and a literary one based on the often fanciful notions of the scribes who compiled the KangXi dictionary. The hazard here is that when words are severed from their history, there is no way to disambiguate collisions in forms. If we accept that -tor always takes its Latin meaning, then is a store a place that s's things? We can then see the store sing...oh wait, sing is already a word. Chinese often has different sub-word forms for the same meaning that seem to serve no other purpose than disambiguation...the choice of gao, zhang, or da for high/tall seems driven more by the need to avoid making the vocabulary even more homonymic than is already is than any sort of internal logic. The end result is not something easy to learn, I can attest. Collisions can go the other direction: exovision, television, exopticon, and telopticon are all possible neologisms for the same thing, but only one is the real word. Also, we need practical words for the things in our world, not the words that naturally follow from linguistic logic. A cabinet isn't a small cabin, but a word that has displaced the more logical "cupboard" as the older word's logic becomes obsolete and disfavored due to awkward pronunciation. We already have the word protoge and no need to invent a derivative of mentor for it; that way lies madness.

Posted by: M. Rad. | Jan 4, 2017 11:33:42 PM

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