When I mentioned to Intrepid Reader Magi, currently of Somewhere-on-the-Road-in-New-Mexico (and also known as my best friend) that I wanted to do a post on back formation, she said, “That’s interesting, because I have an extra vertebra.” While I couldn’t believe we’ve been friends for 23 years and I didn’t know this, and while perhaps this explains why she is so courageous, that wasn’t the type of back formation I had in mind.
I began thinking about it a few days ago when I got this note from Intrepid Reader Barney of Ithaca, NY: “[I]t grates on my nerves when people refer to a so-called ‘mentee,’ that is, one who is mentored. It makes sense to talk about an examinee because there is a verb ‘to examine,’ just as there is a noun ‘examiner.’ But there is no verb ‘to ment,’ so mentee is linguistically invalid.”
Aw, dang, Barney. This is back formation in action. This instance just makes us a little nervous because it’s so new.
I would say that at least once a week, I look up an etymology and see the phrase “back formation from [such and such a word].” Back formation occurs when a speaker/writer removes what he thinks is a prefix or suffix from a word and, left with a new “root” that wasn’t actually a root in the first place, adds another particle and creates a new word.¹ As you’ve pointed out here, “ment” wasn’t the root of “mentor.” The verb comes from the Greek mythological character of the same name, and has come to mean trusted adviser, or one who shepherds another through a time of personal or professional growth.
Why does back formation occur? Sometimes there’s ignorance of the source word’s origin—a factor in this case. But often, the new word derived from back formation is also a convenient and frugal expression of the concept it’s now describing. And almost always, the new word formation follows a pattern that’s seen in other words. In this case, It’s obvious that what’s happened is that the “–or” suffix, which typically means “one who does (root verb),” has been dropped, and the “-ee”—”one who gets (root verb) done to him”—has been added.
As I’ve looked at this idea, I’ve found things that I didn’t even realize were back formation. For example, the singular of “syringes” was originally the Greek-derived “syrinx.” Take off the –s like you would with any regular plural, and “syringe” was born. “Complicit” didn’t originally exist, but was formed from the noun “complicity,” taking on a form like “explicit” and “implicit.” If we declared “linguistically invalid” every word we have that came from a back formation, the corpus would shrink considerably!
Words form in a lot of ways in English. We adopt them from other languages (Schadenfreude), we change parts of speech (like the mentor→to mentor), we chop off whole sections (phone). We are all kinds of creative. Back formation is this creativity in action. If “mentee” is not doing its job in getting across a concept, if the speakers and writers decide it’s ugly sounding or that there’s a better word, “mentee” will die. If not, in a few years or decades, people won’t be any more aware of its origin than they are of “syringe.”
I’m afraid that even if we made Herculean efforts to remind people of the mythological origin of “mentor,” it would be a Sisyphean task. My advice? Take your shoulder from the boulder and relax.
¹ Or, he may know that it’s not actually a prefix/suffix, but may think the new word is a clever coinage.