Who You Calling a Protégé?

The word mentor comes from Homer's Odyssey, in which the goddess Athena is transmuted into Mentor, the trusted friend of Odysseus and guide to his son, Telemachus. By 1750, mentor had become a common noun meaning "wise counselor," and today, of course, it's often used in a professional context, where a wise and influential mentor undertakes to advance your career.

Its companion term, protégé, hasn't fared so well. The word carries with it a whiff of decay and privilege, even though the respectable American Heritage Dictionary defines the term as "one whose welfare, training, or career is promoted by an influential person." These days, wouldn't you know, mentors have mentees, a word coined, perhaps, to expunge the perfuminess of protégé and level the perceptual playing field. And lately we even have telementoring, a term that refers to a mentor-mentee relationship in which the primary contact is achieved through remote telecommunication, mainly email.