Making my peace with 'mentoring'

The Monitor’s language columnist has made peace with ‘mentor’ as a verb; ‘mentee’ as the term for the one being mentored, not so much.

Brennen Smith/The Decatur Daily/AP
Tina Langdon (l.) tutors Dontay Garner (r.) during an after school session at the Carrie Matthews Recreation Center in Decatur. Ala.

A professional organization to which I belong has long struggled to establish a mentoring program for its members.

I suspect we’re not alone. It can be hard to find people of a certain breadth and depth of experience willing to commit to working long term to help someone more junior find the right professional path.

But beyond that, there are those – found disproportionately within the “breadth and depth” crowd, I suspect – who have trouble with mentor as a verb.

Lucy Ferriss, at the Lingua Franca blog, commented recently that a new writing project has taken her “deep into the fields of business and finance” where “at every turn” she has been encountering mentor and – gasp! – mentee. “I confess publicly here, and with no small amount of shame, that these terms irritate me, as if someone’s placing a guiding hand on the back of my neck every time either of them comes up.”

Those whose breadth and depth extend to the Greek classics, as Ms. Ferriss’s clearly do, recall that Mentor was the friend whom Odysseus asked to keep an eye on his son, Telemachus, while Odysseus was off fighting the Trojan War. And sometimes Athena disguised herself as Mentor to counsel Telemachus and keep an eye on the suitors trying to make moves on Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, in his absence. (Maybe my professional group would have less trouble if we could promise prospective mentors they could pass off some of the heavy lifting to the Greek goddess of wisdom.)

Mentor certainly makes for an apt figurative usage – after all, Mentor actually did mentor Telemachus. And I accept that nouns, even proper nouns, can become verbs. 

My own quibble with the mentor thing is that there’s no perfect term for the junior partner in the relationship. 

Mentee is the word that’s often used; it has made it into at least some dictionaries. But it sounds like the name of those sea creatures that fooled love-starved sailors into thinking they were seeing mermaids, doesn’t it? And it comes close enough to the French word meaning “to lie,” in the mendacious sense (mentir), that mentee suggests “someone who has been sold a bill of goods.” 

My real gripe with mentee, though, has been that it suggests that those who use it think mentor is an “agent noun,” referring to a “doer” of some imagined action, “menting.” A “mentor” is one who “ments,” in other words. (Compare lessor and lessee, for instance.)

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say in its entry for mentor, which came into English as a noun around 1750: “the name appears to be an agent noun of mentos,” meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, passion.” Mentor is related to a Sanskrit word meaning “one who thinks,” and to the Latin monitor, “one who admonishes.” 

So maybe a mentor is “one who thinks,” and by extension, shares thoughts with others. I’m still not sold, though, on mentee.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Making my peace with 'mentoring'
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Verbal-Energy/2014/1023/Making-my-peace-with-mentoring
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe