"Is Not a Word":

This comment on the recent thread on misspelled phrases reminds me of one of my pet peeves:

I find "mentee" so offensive that I disparage its usage at every opportunity. While I will reluctantly overlook the use of "Mentor" as a verb (that battle is lost), I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the verb "to ment" that "mentee" necessarily implies. Resumes containing this word require no further review. I recently returned a fundraising letter in its business reply envelope with the word circled and the written comment, "This is not a word." I reserve such vitriol and summary dismissal for this error alone. This is because it is what might be called a Homeric error. And I don't mean Homer Simpson. Please warn your students against this fatally discrediting usage.

Here's one thing I find so offensive that I disparage its usage at every opportunity: The use of a phrase "is not a word" -- which you'd think would have the standard meaning of, well, "is not a word" -- to mean "should not be a word" or "is a word that annoys me." English speakers use "mentee," and use it often enough that it's gotten into the OED (attested for over 40 years), as well as the Random House Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary. It is, which is to say "is," a word, which is to say "a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning" -- with the function and the meaning attested by the authorities in the field (dictionaries).

I have nothing against complaints that some word or phrase is inelegant or confusing, or admonitions to students that using some word or phrase will lead some readers to think the less of them. The earlier thread was all about collecting data for such admonitions.

But those complaints should, I think, be put that way. They should not be made by claiming that something is not a word when it is a word under any sensible and common definition of the term "word."

(Note that there may be an exception when the claim is clearly hyperbole, but here this exception doesn't apply: A reader may well assume that "mentee" is actually an uncommon error, rather than a usage that is common enough that it has been recognized by lexicographers as a normal part of the English language.)

What else do you call the subject of a mentor? shows no other replacement word, not even with the thesaurus. (Yes, I'm a bit too lazy to go over to the Roget's, but this subject doesn't warrant that much work)
8.23.2007 1:44pm
Bruce H. (mail):
>> What else do you call the subject of a mentor?

8.23.2007 1:50pm
Thank you!

I, too, am sick of the "that is not a word" argument. Even if something doesn't show up in a dictionary, if somebody uses it, and the person that hears it understands what was meant by it, it's a word.

Absofreakinglutely is too a word!
8.23.2007 1:52pm
Dave N (mail):
But absofreakinglutely ain't a word I use.

On a more serious note, while I generally agree with the main point, what about spelling rules? If I see a word and recognize what the author is trying to say, why do the spelling rules then matter? If someone wrote "I don't no what happened" is that person merely creating a new definition for an existing word and not misspelling at all?
8.23.2007 1:58pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
As the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, "acolyte" means "[a] devoted follower or attendant," and "protege" means "[o]ne whose welfare, training, or career is promoted by an influential person." Yet one can mentor someone who doesn't become a devoted follower or attendant, and one can mentor someone without actively promoting his career: Though one definition of "mentor" is "an influential senior sponsor or supporter" (Random House), the more commonly given definition is "wise and trusted counselor or teacher."

That's why "mentee" is generally defined as referring to being guided or tutored, and not necessarily as following or being directly promoted or supported.
8.23.2007 1:59pm
James Fulford (mail):
"What else do you call the subject of mentor?"

8.23.2007 2:04pm
Obviously the person does not mean by 'is not a word' 'should not be a word' or 'is a word that annoys me,' though you may think that he or she should rather say that it should not be a word or is a word that annoys him or her.

It seems false that it is sufficient for x to be a word that A makes a sound of type x intending to mean y and B takes that sound to be A's attempt to say something that means y. At the very least, there would have to be some acceptance of a rule, at least between A and B, about when uses of that sound are appropriate and when not.

One who denies that 'mentee' is a word may just be denying that within a certain community that he or she takes to be privileged (all ordinary American English speakers?) there is sufficient acceptance of that expression to qualify as a word.
8.23.2007 2:06pm
Yankev (mail):

What else do you call the subject of a mentor?

I still vote for protege.
Mentee sounds too much like the endangered sea cows that inhabit Florida's coastal waters.

Was that your mentee I saw you with at lunch?

No, that's not the person I ment.

Uggh. Mentee may be a word, but so is puke.
8.23.2007 2:07pm
Mineiro (mail):
Resume is a verb. The document "requiring no further review" is a résumé.
8.23.2007 2:27pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Flagestimate is not a word.

Gravaman is a misspelling of the word "gravamen." It is still considered a misspelling because it isn't common enough.

Donut is a word that means the same thing as "doughnut." The spelling "donut" is newer than "doughnut," but it has been common enough that it is broadly considered acceptable. Dictionaries offer evidence of that.

Irregardless is a word, but one that a lot of people view as evidence of lack of education, to the point that lexicographers mark it as dangerous to use.

Mentee is a word, which at least one person -- and perhaps some others -- dislike, but which lexicographers treat as a perfectly standard though new word. This decision by lexicographers suggests that it's not particularly dangerous to use, though it may annoy some people.

I don't much care whether people say that "gravaman" is not a word, or is a word but one that would generally be seen as a misspelling. But once a particular term becomes common enough -- and dictionaries are good at providing evidence of that -- then it's hard for me to see a sensible definition of "word" under which that term "is not a word."
8.23.2007 2:30pm
BobH (mail):
Wait -- flagestimate is not a word?
8.23.2007 2:35pm
Ex parte McCardle:
"What else do you call the subject of a mentor?"

How about "lickspittle," a great old word which has fallen into unwarrented desuetude?

Just kidding, obviously, although it accurately describes the role I was expected to fulfill the one time I was officially assigned a mentor.
8.23.2007 3:07pm
Ex parte McCardle:
I meant to type unwarranted.
8.23.2007 3:08pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
What else do you call the subject of a mentor?

Tutoree -- much more euphonic, with a faint scent of French which gives it an air of respectability. Or you could just say student.
8.23.2007 3:13pm
Student implies much more of a classroom setting to. And the flip side of tutor would be tutee, as per the mentor - mentee.

If we are going to get rid of words people have coined, pretty soon we'll be back to caveman grunts; at least, in my flagestimable opinion.
8.23.2007 3:22pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Sean O'Hara: Seriously? You'd recommend "tutoree," a word that I couldn't find in any dictionary (and that gets 32,200 estimated Google hits), over "mentee," a word that appears in several leading dictionaries (and that gets 773,000 estimated Google hits)? If you want to say "tutoree," that's fine by me, but I don't really see its superiority over "mentee" (except in the purely esthetic sense that you mention, based on an esthetic judgment that I don't share but that obviously can't be much argued about).

As to "student," doesn't that have a strong connotation of a formal classroom teaching relationship (or at least the student's being enrolled in some formal educational institution), as opposed to just an informal guidance-giving relationship?
8.23.2007 3:22pm
AK (mail):
I might recognize "mentee" as a word, but I will never recognize "Mentos" as a food.
8.23.2007 3:44pm
Dave N (mail):
I thought protégé might work for someone who is mentored. Alas, defines "protégé" as "a person under the patronage, protection, or care of someone interested in his or her career or welfare."

The same source defines "mentor" as 1. "a wise and trusted counselor or teacher" or 2. an "influential senior sponsor or supporter."

So while "protégé" is close, it isn't quite there.
8.23.2007 3:44pm
Rich B. (mail):
Flagestimate is a perfectly cromulent word.

It means, "To guess how patriotic someone is by the size or number of the symbols of their nation appearing in the visible portion of their property."

Example: "Sure, Joe's got a taller flagpole, but with all of Mike's bunting, I'd flagestimate he loves his country more."
8.23.2007 3:54pm
Colin Fraizer (mail):
I find "Is Not a Word" so offensive, that I will disparage this post at every opportunity. "Is Not a Word" is not a blog entry! I reserve this vitriol and summary dismissal for this posting alone.
8.23.2007 4:16pm
Bob Goodman (mail) (www):
We used to call the tutored "tutees".
8.23.2007 4:43pm
Mineiro (mail):
Shall we refer to the recipient of a punch as a "punchee?"
8.23.2007 5:01pm
la petite chou chou:
As an editor, I argue that without formal spelling rules and at least some semblance of structure around the language, it will eventually break down and as a result no one will be able to understand it. English is reported to be the hardest language to learn as it is, due to all our uses of slang and already flaccid rules.

By the way, irregardless is only considered to be a word because so many people use it that it was eventually adopted into dictionaries. Webster's thinks it is a combination of regardless and irrespective and recommends simply using regardless. Why add the "ir" prefix? It doesn't add anything to the word, and in fact, detracts. "Ir" means either "not," or "before" and when applied to regardless becomes "not regardless" or "before regardless." Anyone can see these make no sense.
8.23.2007 5:17pm
Mark Field (mail):

We used to call the tutored "tutees".

"Tutee" gets over 10,000 hits and at least one on-line dictionary entry.
8.23.2007 5:19pm
I've noticed that "is not a word" is used frequently by lawyers who invent Bluebook rules that don't actually exist. Funny, eh? But I guess it's all part of the same cosmic "gotcha" game.
8.23.2007 5:35pm
BobH (mail):
La Petite Chou Chou says, "irregardless is only considered to be a word because so many people use it that it was eventually adopted into dictionaries."

Well of course. How else would any new coinage become an accepted word? This encapsulates the descriptivist/prescriptivist battle that rages all around us: Is the function of a dictionary to describe the words that people DO use, or to prescribe the words that people SHOULD use? Seems to me that even the briefest consideration must lead to the former, because (1) what gives dictionary-makers the power to tell people what words they should use, and (2) if the latter were the case, how could languages evolve?

And as to your discussion of "irregardless" ("Why add the 'ir' prefix [to 'regardless']? It doesn't add anything to the word, and in fact, detracts"): please now discuss "inflammable."
8.23.2007 5:38pm
M.E.Butler (mail):
Where's Lewis Carroll when we need him?

As soon as a word means whatever we damn well wish it to mean, we can move right on down the pike to

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

It's great poetry, but I'd be reluctant to put that language into a brief.
8.23.2007 5:40pm
Rich B: While "flagestimate" could have the meaning you ascribe, your example usage, to flagestimate how much one loves his country, would be entirely redundant.

My understanding of "flagestimate" is an approximation of how much whipping is necessary to accomplish a given task. E.g.:

"What's your best flagestimate of the time it takes to make a meringue from raw eggs?"

"I'd flagestimate about 30 lashes before this Guantanimo prisoner decides to confess."

"Experts flagestimate that a cat-o-nine-tails is far too advanced for beginners S&M roleplaying."
8.23.2007 5:50pm
BobH (mail):
M.E. Butler apparently takes the position that the words in the quoted portion of "Jabberwocky" have no meaning. He is wrong.

1. "Brillig" = Four o'clock in the afternoon: the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.

2. "Slithy" is what Carrol called a "portmanteau" word, derived from combining "slimy" and "lithe."

3. "Tove" = a curious-looking creature that is a combination of a badger, a lizard, and a corkscrew. Toves make their nests under sundials and live on cheese.

4. "Gyre," curiously, has two meanings: to go round and round like a gyroscope, and to scratch like a dog.

5. "Gimble" = to make holes like a gimlet.

6. "Wabe" = the grass plot around a sundial. It is called a "wabe" because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it, and a long way beyond it on each side.

Moreover, lawyers -- and, more to the point, judges -- often use words that mean whatever they damn well wish them to mean. Case in point: "reasonable."
8.23.2007 5:54pm
Tommy (mail):
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?
8.23.2007 5:57pm
Tim Dowling (mail):
My recollection is that during the Bush I Administration, EPA's chief of staff issue a memo banning the use of the word "proactive" because, in his words, "it's not a word." Evidently, he didn't like it, word-wise speaking. I don't think the memo had much impact.

I also recall seeing a memo from then-Solicitor General Charles Fried prohibiting the use of "caselaw." He didn't said it's not a word, but he did denounce it as an "abomination." I guess he really likes to see the space between the word "case" and "Law."

By the way, mentoring has it's own month, January. IT'S THE LAW. Go forth and ment.
8.23.2007 5:57pm
Tim Dowling (mail):
PS -- Insinuendo isn't a word, but it should be.
8.23.2007 6:02pm
Also, I'd like EV's opinion on whether the following are "a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning."




8.23.2007 6:02pm
Anonymo the Anonymous:
It's great poetry, but I'd be reluctant to put that language into a brief.

Yes, because no one would understand what you mean. If through common usage those words came to be widely understood, you would not be reluctant to do so. This change would come about solely through common usage, not by the pronouncement of some authority figure.
8.23.2007 6:04pm
WNY-Mike (mail):
Flagestimate has an alternative pronunciation and definition, namely:

Flagestimate (fla-jest-i-mate): To ingest the flatulence produced by one's spouse.

Example: Sam refused to pull the car to the side of the road, so poor Sally flagestimated for five miles, at which point she shot him.
8.23.2007 6:11pm
BobH (mail):
Anonymo makes a valid point -- ironically, a point that's proven by some of the words in the poem "Jabberwocky" itself. Would M.E. Butler be reluctant to use the words "burble," "chortle," or "galumph" in a brief? Although these words may not be widely used, they are nevertheless recognizable and by no means outre. And all three are words that Carroll invented for "Jabberwocky."
8.23.2007 6:12pm
NaG (mail):
I propose that "the" is not a word. It means nothing. There is nothing about "the" that adds meaning to a subsequent word. "The pig" has no different meaning than simply "pig"; "the" can simply be inferred from the noun itself. Rewriting a sentence to remove "the" can be done in every instance, with no change in meaning. Only reason why we use "the" is because we have become used to hearing it, like, uh, "like," which is now synonymous with "um," "uh," and "er" to all those under 35 years of age.
8.23.2007 6:35pm
BobH (mail):
Eliminate article!!
8.23.2007 6:53pm
Mike Keenan:
What is the origin of the "is not a word" feeling that so many (including me) have? My son's English teacher corrected him last week when my son used suicide as a verb. The googling I did shows it has been used as a verb for 250 years.

I know my English teacher thoroughly immersed me in the "is not a word", don't split infinitives, and other such. He was an excellent teacher though.

I really enjoy reading these English language posts. I have been converted! Although I still forbid my son to use me as the subject of a sentence.
8.23.2007 7:11pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
My answer to "is not a word" is "it is now."

If you know some Greek and some Latin, you too can coin words and there's a good chance people will understand you.
8.23.2007 7:22pm
BobH (mail):
"If you know some Greek and some Latin, you too can coin words...."

Interestingly, the Germans don't seem to do this. For example, the English word "television" is derived from a combination of two Latin roots, "tele" (far) and "vision" (see). The German word for that thing with a screen is "Fernseh," which is derived from the German words "fern" (far) and "seh" (see). The English word "hippopotamus" -- "river horse" -- is derived from two Greek roots, "hippo" (horse) and "potamus" (having to do with a river). The German word for that large animal is "Flusspferd," which is derived from the German "Fluss" (river) and "Pferd" (horse).

On the other hand, the German word for "elevator" is "Fahrstuhl," which is derived from the Germkan "fahr[en]" (to drive, to travel) and "Stuhl" (chair). Oh well -- leben und leben lassen, I guess.
8.23.2007 7:30pm
How many dictionaries does a "unit of sound" that was not formally a word have to appear in before it "is" a word? Isn't there room for legitimate disagreement on this question, such that someone can legitimately argue that a particular unit of sound "is not a word" until its acceptance is universal?
8.23.2007 7:57pm
BobH (mail):
Universal? Every speaker of the language must not only be familiar with the "unit of sound," but also agree on its precise meaning? Is that what you mean by "its acceptance is universal?"
8.23.2007 8:07pm
la petite chou chou:
To BobH: I can't explain "inflammable." (Though I could venture a guess that "inflammable" and "flammable" are merely synonyms while "irregardless" became a synonym of "regardless" due to usage.) I only know the fact that ir/in means "not" which is what I applied to "irregardless," because in that case "ir" is truly a prefix added to an already existing word.

Lots of people think inflammable means not flammable and I wish it were the case because the same argument would then be true. The fact that I can't make the same argument only strengthens my earlier statement: "English is reported to be the hardest language to learn as it is, due to all our uses of slang and already flaccid rules." Flaccid rules being the emphasis here. (As a side comment about it though, in a forestry class I took in college, the instructor did describe inflammable to mean not flammable.)

What I want to know is how "terrific" can mean both "very bad" and also "unusually fine," two almost opposites...
8.23.2007 8:09pm
How about until every major dictionary includes it.
8.23.2007 8:09pm
la petite chou chou:
This is why style manuals are constantly making new editions.
8.23.2007 8:13pm
Andrew Myers (mail) (www):
The process of creating new words by removing supposed endings is called "back-formation" by the linguists. For example, verbs like "sail" and "pea" are formed through this process. "sailor" did not come from "one who sails", and "pease" was not the plural of "pea". It's a very standard process that has resulted in many commonly used words.
8.23.2007 8:21pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Re "[in]flammable": IIRC it's "flammable" that's the back-formation, a word invented because some people took "inflammable" to mean "unburnable." Since this is not the sort of confusion one wants regarding, say, a tanker full of gasoline, "flammable" was coined as an ambiguity-free substitute.

The trouble is that "in-" & "im-" can have two different and nearly opposite meanings as prefixes, and there's no way to know which is meant except word-by-word.
8.23.2007 8:28pm
bittern (mail):

I have been converted! Although I still forbid my son to use me as the subject of a sentence.

That's going overboard. Forbid him to use you as the subject of an essay, but how bad a light could he put you in in just one sentence?
8.23.2007 8:36pm
la petite chou chou:
I think that person meant forbid to use "me" instead of "I" but one has to accept the fact that sometimes "me" is right and "I" is wrong.

Mom is going to the store with my sister and I. This is wrong. The correct sentence would be: Mom is going to the store with my sister and me.
8.23.2007 8:51pm
bittern (mail):
Petite chou chou,
Clearly that person didn't want his son to use him as a subject. What I'm now more concerned about is that his son might be "using" you as an object. An object of what? Pourquoi vous-pensez-vous que vous etes all mixed up with that person's son's life? To think of little chou-chous being objectified like that is very worrisome.
8.23.2007 9:15pm
JoshL (mail):
Re: inflammable. Inflammable is, of course, related to the verb "inflame" (variant enflame). Something that is inflammable is something that can be inflamed (or enflamed), with the whole set being based on inflammare. The problem, of course, is that in modern laguage no one inflames anything: you light it or set it on fire. You might use in/enflame in poetry, but at this point inflamed is only going to be used for something that feels like it's on fire: athlete's foot, for example, will cause an inflamation and make your foot feel inflamed.
8.23.2007 9:23pm
la petite chou chou:
bittern: You've lost me. Maybe it is because I'm now tired.

Perhaps I read it the way I did because I didn't quite get why someone's son was being interjected into the mix...? Sounded more like a grammatical demand than a personal demand to me at the time.
8.23.2007 9:51pm
la petite chou chou:

The problem is taht bittern is terrificly funny, but you don't share his sense of humor.
8.23.2007 11:24pm
la petite chou chou:
Oh, I get the joke. Yours is quite clever too. Good job.
8.24.2007 12:10am
Matt S.:
What if flammable and inflammable don't really mean the same thing?--"flamed" (as in "torched") suggests an agent in a way "inflamed" (as in "on fire") doesn't.

Hm, this page is flagestimate's only Google hit. We should define getting on Volokh Conspiracy to be the sole grounds for "being a word." I think that could totally be practical.

As for unnecessary prefixes--it seems half of English can be instantly translated into Latin by removing the first 2 or 3 letters. I'd like to think it's a way of making Latin more secretive: "-duce"? "-ject"? "-fer"?--English-only speakers won't immediately know what you're saying.
8.24.2007 12:44am
I can think of a more charitable way to interpret someone saying, for example, "flagestimate is not word" and I can illustrate this position best analogically. Wikipedia starts the entry on "chair" by defining it as a piece of furniture used for sitting. A stump or a cinder block may perform this role and yet, while I might say that I'm using the stump as a chair, I would not say the stump is a chair. In a similar way, even though one might understand the meaning conveyed by a particular unit of sounds or letters, one can still quite legitimately not call that particular unit a word. Just as a stump can be used as a chair and not be a chair, a unit of sound can be used as a word and not be a word.

People will disagree over whether a particular mass of wood can be called a chair while agreeing that it can be used as a chair. So too with units of sound or letters. If someone says flagestimate is not a word (a position, by the way, I hope cannot be held creditably for very much longer), they are not necessarily expressing that it shouldn't be a word; they may simply calling as they see it.

Perhaps Mr. Volokh can learn to not be offended by such expressions. Surely such a picayune matter shouldn't rank above tiresome?
8.24.2007 3:49am
Alejandro (mail) (www):

What else do you call the subject of a mentor?

8.24.2007 10:22am
John D. Galt (mail):
I'll grant you that a language is defined by consensus of its users. Nevertheless, there has to be a line drawn somewhere between what's valid and what's not, because otherwise you don't have a language at all, but total chaos. One may as well accept every letter-string in Finnegan's Wake as a valid word as accept the usages of so-called Ebonics.

And even in mainstream English some people use strings that I regard as non-words. My favorite example was when a candidate for school board used "orientate" and "competency" -- both non-words in my opinion -- in his ballot pamphlet statement, thus demonstrating to any educated reader that he wasn't qualified.
8.24.2007 1:08pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
My favorite example was when a candidate for school board used "orientate" and "competency" -- both non-words in my opinion -- in his ballot pamphlet statement, thus demonstrating to any educated reader that he wasn't qualified.

"Non-words"? Really? "Orientate" is the standard British English equivalent of American English's verb "orient." I haven't looked up the British word's history, but I'd guess that it started as a back-formation from "orientation" — i.e., exactly what we're now seeing in American English.

As for "competency," "competence" still out-Googles it substantially, but "competency test" out-Googles "competence test" by about 7:1. I'd say it's a standard word by now, at least in that connection.

Now, "Finnegan's Wake" with an apostrophe in it, OTOH . . . no, that's just a mistake ;-)
8.24.2007 3:23pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Yeats also used "gyre" frequently, including in what is probably the most famous poem of the twentieth century. At the time it may have been "not a word" in the complainant's sense, but I think we are the better for it. On the other hand, some words that ought not to be used (because they have perfectly synonymous and less awkward substitutes) persist, such as "incentivize." And some are used solely to convey an unwarranted impression of the speaker's power and intellectual agility, so as to be laughable and worthy of banishment. Examples of these include "proactive" and "paradigm" (especially when followed by "shift").
8.24.2007 3:54pm
bittern (mail):

I'll grant you that a language is defined by consensus of its users. Nevertheless, there has to be a line drawn somewhere between what's valid and what's not, because otherwise you don't have a language at all, but total chaos.

Language is what people use to communicate. No consensus is required, but if there's no communcation, language ain't happening. The question could be whether it's "English," and that might be subject to consensus. Us birders use "twitch" "jizz" and "pish" in a way that non-birders would have a hard time understanding right off. Techies have plenty of their own words, that I wouldn't understand. But it's still English and it's not chaos. We'd presumably agree that win-talk, pig-Latin, and sign language are outside English. Most entertaining to me is when two foreigners speak to each other in traveler English, understanding each other well enough, and I haven't got a clue. Still ain't chaos. There's natural centrifugal and centripetal forces operating. Don't worry about it.
8.24.2007 4:16pm
JohnEMack (mail):
Would other passive forms be better? How about "mentess" for female epigones? Or "mented," which permits us to call former students "demented."
8.25.2007 10:56am