Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

Folks talk all the time about the “Mentor/Mentee” relationship. Let me say up front that I absolutely recognize how language shifts and evolves over time, and that there’s no point railing against some linguistic nitpick. But Imma do it anyway.

Mentor was a dude. Like, that was his name. When you needed his attention, you’d yell, “yo, Mentor!” In Greek, obviously, because he was Greek. He was in The Odyssey. 

And he was a teacher, which is likely where we got the idea to start using his name with a lowercase “m,” as in, “mentor.” Cool. Although, I mean, it’s a bit like saying that someone who cooks well is a “julia,” or someone who writes horror is a “stephen.” “Hey, friend, can you recommend a good julia to me? I have a need to lay down some chicken stock in my kitchen.”

The man that Mentor taught was Telemachus, not Mentee. Telly, as friends probably did not call him, was Odysseus’ son. So talking about the “Mentor/Mentee” relationship is like talking about the “Don/Donee” relationship after taking one of my classes, which is just weird. You can certainly speak of the uplifting “Mentor/Telemachus” relationship you had, but it’s going to sound even weirder.

Even “Mentoring” is a little weird when you realize that this was a guy’s name. It’d be like taking political instruction from a former President and saying you’d been “Baracked.” Or that you’re a former pro football player who is currently “Peytoning” someone. Kind of sounds like that someone could use a grown-up, right?

Certainly, nobody in Britain would make a note in their annual performance review about how they were “rogered” by someone, and being “mentored” kinda starts to feel the same way. Even if your “mentor” was called Roger.

If you’re suddenly less interested in being a “mentor,” or in being “mentored” by someone, or in being someone’s “mentee,” perhaps you could merely be a teacher, who is teaching a colleague. Yeah, maybe it sounds all elementary-school juvenile, but it feels like we have a good set of nouns and verbs for those people and activities, so why not use them? Or maybe you’re a helper, helping someone be helped. Helping feels pretty positive, and not at all weird.

Wikipedia says, “the personal name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.” I’m not sure how teacher became inappropriate for that activity – maybe it’s because we think of teachers less as colleagues and more as authority figures. But maybe that’s a toxic way of ranking people; maybe a teacher should be anyone who imparts wisdom and knowledge to someone else, regardless of their relative social or work standing. Mentor, the guy, was a teacher. You can be one too, and you can even keep your own name as you do it.

 

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