Recently, I initiated a mentoring program here at Copyediting. I put the call out for mentors and mentees and matched people up.
Over on Twitter, though, @MANUALOFHULK (aka Chicago Style Hulk) asked in Hulk-like fashion: “@Copyediting MENTOR PROGRAM SOUND PROMISING, BUT HULK ALSO CURIOUS—MIGHT 'PROTÉGÉS' HAVE LEG UP ON 'MENTEES'?” @MANUALOFHULK linked to an entry in Garner’s Modern American Usage as support.
Garner’s notes that:
The main oddity about the pair [mentor and mentee] is that unlike most pairs ending in -or and -ee, these are not from a verb stem. That is, almost every other pair derives from a verb—grantor–grantee, licensor–licensee, mortgagor–mortgagee, and so on. But there is no verb to ment, and mentor derives from the eponym Mentor, the name of a guide or adviser in Homer’s Odyssey.
Certainly it’s an inconsistency, but English is full of such inconsistencies. Should that mean, as Garner advises, that we use protégé instead?
The real reason to consider whether to use mentee or protégé is precise word usage. Although related, the two words do not mean the same thing. A protégé is someone who is sponsored and promoted by someone who is more experienced and influential, often called a mentor. The relationship tends to be long term, with the pair working closely together or frequently checking in with each other.
A mentee is someone who is guided or tutored by someone more experienced, also usually called a mentor. But the mentor has no obligations to promote or sponsor their mentee, just to offer guidance or training. The relationship may be a short one, lasting only a few weeks or months rather than years.
Based on the relationships I originally proposed, mentee is the more precise word. Should the relationship become more of sponsorship as well as guidance—not a bad thing in my book—then protégé would be the correct word.