Request Denied


I've always wanted a rubber stamp that said "REQUEST DENIED", although I don't know if I'd ever be able to bring myself to use it. (That said, I once had made, and gave to someone as a gift, a rubber stamp that was a full eleven inches wide and four inches tall, which said PISS OFF! in all caps. That was fun to pick up at the office-supply store.)
But if I did have a "REQUEST DENIED" stamp, I'd use it for this semi-serious request that was written about here, at the Volokh Conspiracy:

Instead of creating a new word to represent someone who is receiving guidance under a mentor as a 'mentee', couldn't someone (not certain of who is responsible for adding/changing definitions to the official dictionaries) simply add an additional definition to the word protege to allow for further meaning?

Okay. Let's unpack this a bit:

  • There is no one person who is responsible for "adding/changing definitions to the official dictionaries" — at least, not for English, as English has no "official dictionaries." Perhaps you're thinking of French?
  • Dictionaries (as is, thankfully, pointed out in the original post) don't add new definitions "to allow for further meaning". "Further meanings: allowed" is the DEFAULT SETTING. You want to use protege to mean mentee? Go ahead, knock yourself out — just be prepared to be misunderstood.
    (Me, I occasionally use henimus to mean "(not a) genius", based on a MISUNDERSTANDING of this episode ["Girlfriend 2000"] from the old Chris Elliott show "Get a Life", which I think four people watched … although the toxic-waste-doping spelling bee episode, "Chris's Brain", with its prize of a jewel-encrusted dictionary, is a Dictionary Evangelist favorite. But I don't expect to be understood when I use henimus, because it's about as obscure as you can get.)
  • If you don't like mentee, there's no reason you have to use it: say "the person I mentor," or some other work-around. Just because a word exists doesn't imply that its use is obligatory.

Also worth rebutting (which Volokh does quite well, but I'll throw in a couple pennies as well): the idea that if the word mentee exists, that this implies the existence of the verb to ment. I don't know where this notion came from, but English morphology is a bit more fluid than this. You can certainly go from mentor to mentee without having to postulate some missing-link verb *ment. Although, frankly, I'm considering using ment now (strictly jocularly, and on my own recognizance) just to piss those anti-mentee people off.
To sum up: yes, mentee is a slightly awkward word. Give it time to grow up a bit, or use a work-around of some sort … although if you decide to repurpose another word, be prepared for some "what?" reactions. But, please, don't waste your time or anyone else's trying to get a dictionary to record a change that hasn't yet happened in the language. We have enough to do keeping up with the changes that have!
Thanks to Kat for the link!

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21 thoughts on “Request Denied

  1. You know, you were most informative at the New Word Open Mic. Would you consider menting me in dilettantish lexicography? I’m eminently mentable.

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  2. The Society of American Archivists at least has adopted this meaning of protégé: there will be a Mentor-Protégé coffee break at their conference this year.

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  3. Hey Erin!I just saw your talk at TED which was fantasmical. This comment/question has nothing to do with this post but I was too lazy to figure out how to email you. I am wondering if you ever listen to rap/hip-hop which very often lends itself to new, unique uses of words. Being the starting point for much slang today and you seeming as open minded as you do, I thought I’d check. Thanks! -Tk

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  4. Edward — thanks for the kind words about the TED talk — I didn’t realize it was up yet!Anyway, yes, I *do* listen to hip-hop, especially the more wordy kind. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Kanye and I always recommend MC Paul Barman …

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  5. Another vagabond pointed here by TED. Which I liked well enough to give you a modest write-up of my own.Anyway.Through coincidence, I’ve known Eugene for — good lord — about 20 years. Long enough to remember the days when he’d recommend restaurants for a group of us to go to, and then show… Hm. A certain moral flexibility when it came to contributing to settling the tab.But I’m unsurprised he wants language to be run by some authority. He’s the type of small-l libertarian who’s all in favor of authority over others, as long as it’s not over him. Which is a type I’ve seen often enough to almost be affectionate about.Almost.Anyway… Yours in Round O and Crooked S…

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  6. Ahh, like Edward M. King, I just found you via your TEDTalk (which is available via iTunes now, for those who aren’t familiar).And I want you to be my new best friend. So I’m gonna start reading your blog religiously (and I wish I could think of a lexicographical word that would replace “religiiously”). And I’m gonna tell all my *other* friends to come read your blog too (don’t worry: they’re good people and not scary stalkers). And I’m going to actively practice thinking up new words to use just because I love them. Speaking of which: has “squee” officially made it into some dictionary? As a 46 year old woman, I feel silly typing it, but it definitely fits my excitement of the moment.

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  7. Hal — thank you! But it’s not Volokh who wants the Uberseer of English, it’s some random commenter there. Luci — I haven’t seen ‘squee’ anywhere, but it’s hard for those semi-onomatopoeic words to get a foothold in the ol’ A-Z register sometimes … glad to make you squee, though, whether it’s in any dictionaries or not!

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  8. I love your dress blog, which led me to this one, which is also terrific. I just read The Professor and the Madman about the creation of the OED, and now have a better appreciation – and a growing facination – with how the dictionaries are compiled. This really has nothing to do with your post, but I just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your writing! Thank you!

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  9. That’s the problem with the combination of semi-canned responses on a topic (Mr. Volokh) and lack of sleep due to working the graveyard shift. My apologies to all concerned.

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  10. Heh. Amused by all the people who said they saw you at/online because of TED–one of my RL friends just announced to me the other day that you were his new Internet Girlfriend because he saw your TED speech! He was rather taken aback to be informed that I actually knew you. Apparently his Internet Girlfriend has to be more degrees of separation than that!

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  11. Well, heck, mentor by itself is reasonable fodder for ment backformation, without mentee in the picture. By the logic of the VC commenter (commentator?), people would complain not about the backformed commentate, but about the in-good-standing noun commentator for implying the existence of commentate.

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  12. “You want to use protege to mean mentee? Go ahead, knock yourself out — just be prepared to be misunderstood.”Why would you be misunderstood? Isn’t that what “protege” means? It certainly has a longer pedigree than “mentee” (which, I have to admit, I abhor, especially when it seems like a perfectly good word–“protege”–already exists with the same meaning).I discovered this blog thanks to Dave Wilton and I’m very glad I did.Andy

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  13. I’ve always thought a protege was someone who worked closely with the person they were the protege of (the “protegenitor”?), while a mentor was a bit more hands-off. I would think using protege for a mentoring relationship would imply a degree of closeness that may or may not exist … but hey, your protege may vary.

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  14. I saw your TED video, and, consequently, visited 3 of your websites (and spend way too much time on them). My sincere compliments to you for doing a great job!As a 17 year old I went with AFS on an exchange-year and attended Watertown (NY) High School as a senior … my English grades there where always best of class (and I should note that I only scored an average of about a 6 (we rate from 1 to 10) while studying here in The Netherlands). Anyway, as a foreigner who has Dutch as his mother/father tongue (and, due to living very close to the German border, speaks a good bit of German too) I feel the continues urge to use “xe” when I want an ungendered (which itself is probably not even a word) version of he/she.So, thanks again for your talk, I now feel confident to use “xe” — and who knows, if I use it and those around me understand&like it, a dictionary might eventually learn to love it too 😉

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  15. For a long time I laboured under the misapprehension that ‘mentor’ came from the French ‘mentir’, meaning ‘to lie’.The whole mentor/mentee question suddenly takes on a sinister twist in that light ;)PS: Great blog. Mucho fun.

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  16. Another vagabond pointed here by TED. Which I liked well enough to give you a modest write-up of my own.Anyway.Through coincidence, I’ve known Eugene for — good lord — about 20 years. Long enough to remember the days when he’d recommend restaurants for a group of us to go to, and then show… Hm. A certain moral flexibility when it came to contributing to settling the tab.But I’m unsurprised he wants language to be run by some authority. He’s the type of small-l libertarian who’s all in favor of authority over others, as long as it’s not over him. Which is a type I’ve seen often enough to almost be affectionate about.Almost.Anyway… Yours in Round O and Crooked S…

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