Mentor (also mentoring, mentee) is an old word which has become key because of a number of new social relations it conveys. Mentor comes into modern European languages in 1699, with François de Fenelon’s Les Aventures de Telemaque, which retells the opening chapters of the Odyssey. Mentor, an old friend of Odysseus, is the name and image borrowed by the goddess Athena when, in the first book of Homer’s text, she urges Telemachus to voyage in search of his father. Fenelon’s novel, which was a critique of absolute monarchy, was enormously successful in France and was quickly translated into several European languages (English title: The Adventures of Telemachus, son of Ulysses). The first OED citation for mentor comes from a letter by Lord Chesterfield, dated 1750. The word is regularly but not often used during the next two centuries, usually with a capital letter that clearly signifies its classical origins.
In early 20c, however, and exclusively in America, the term begins to be used to describe a developmental relationship between an experienced senior and a young adult. Initially this relationship is in the context of team sports. In this use, both capital letter and classical source are lost, producing the common noun mentor.
The important shift in meaning in mentor that produces its contemporary significance in English comes slightly later. Influential sociological research during the 1970s suggested that professional success often correlated with an important relationship with an older colleague. That relationship was then, retroactively, defined in terms of the older colleague acting as a mentor; and it was a lack of such mentors that was held to handicap the professional development of those from socially and economically impoverished backgrounds. The sociological research was buttressed by a kind of ego psychology (particularly taken from the work of Levinson) which argued for developmental stages in the formation of the adult. Mentoring became an important condition of successful development.
The stage was then set for linguistic take-off. Frequency of use, as shown in a Google Ngram for both mentor and mentoring, goes very steeply upwards from the 1970s onwards, a linguistic explosion fuelled by two different discourses: a bureaucratic discourse of social equality; and a corporate discourse of the optimization of human resources.
One good example of how the idea that mentoring is key to positive social engineering can be found in the former UK New Labour government’s policy of ‘Learning mentors’. This example shows that mentor had successfully crossed the Atlantic by the end of the 1990s and extended the corporate embrace of mentorship defined in terms of optimization and use of human capital.
From one perspective, the growth of mentors can be understood as transposition of a traditional knight /squire aristocratic relationship onto a modern class society. Mentoring became central to bureaucratic attempts to produce more egalitarian relationships as well as to corporate attempts to produce staff identifications with the firm. But the transposition is not a complete one. If we reflect on the classical origin of the term mentor, what is noticeable is that Telemachus’s Mentor is both divine and a goddess. It is crucial for Homer’s account that Telemachus realizes that Mentor is not human. From a modern perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Mentor figure was in this way an example of a ‘sujet supposé savoir’: that is to say, a figure on which Telemachus can project his situation. This is the exact opposite of the figure sketched in endless self-help manuals and training courses that have proliferated over the last twenty years; in these, the mentor is strikingly directive.
Fuller understanding of the phenomenon of mentoring and mentorship would require an examination both of the bureaucratization of political drives for equality and the psychologization of economic authority. It is probable that, in exploring the phenomenon, mentor should be looked at together with words such as bonding and family that have also acquired new economic meanings in recent years.
One of the reasons mentor has become so popular appears to be that its ‘–or’ suffix suggests that it is one of many agent nouns in English derived from classical Latin, including orator, spectator, etc. This morphological form creates a strong sense that something is being done by the mentor, and it is this which gives rise to both mentoring as well as, by classic back-formation, mentee. But unlike the forms on which the word is obviously calqued, there is no semantic content to the ‘ment’ element. It is this semantic ambiguity (including the significant detail that ‘ment’ suggests some relation to ‘mental’) which may explain the term’s extraordinary explosion over the last two decades.
The same semantic ambiguity may also explain why, despite (or perhaps because of) the explosion in frequency of use of the term and its massive influence in companies internationally, nobody quite seems to know what mentor or mentoring means. The Wikipedia entry for mentoring, for example, notes that “its precise definition is elusive”. What is certain is that, as mentoring becomes more pervasive as a practice, the word mentor functions to mask relations of authority and power, by consciously importing affective relations associated with the private sphere into both school and office.