“Well,” I said to young Marcus Brattle with a touch of trepidation, “I am to be your mentor.” I picked up the cup of tea his mother had poured for me just before she disapparated to another part of the house.
Marcus, relishing the lankiness of early adolescence, had strewn himself along and across the chesterfield, a bottle of Coke in arm’s reach. “Mum wants to cement our relationship, does she? Tell me, are you to be commentor, implementor, or tormentor?”
The last role’s likely yours, I thought. I looked around to see if his mother seemed to be anywhere in earshot, and saw no evidence. “Think of me as just the sort of bad influence you need,” I said.
“A dementor, then,” he said then, almost looking interested. “But is that what you meant, or…”
“Well, more like staving off dementia, now that demention it. Not to worry; you are no hirsute ceramicist, and I will not eat your soul. No, you are to play the part of Telemachus.”
“The student of Mentor. From the Odyssey. And, more recently, the lead character in Mothe-Fénelon’s 1699 book Les Aventures de Télémaque, from which the persona of Mentor came to be popularly known. Our word came up as a reference as much to that book as to the Odyssey.”
“And here I thought it had to do with mental,” Marcus said. “If you’re no good, like, that would make me mentor-ly handicapped.”
“Well, there is a sense of mentation, ” I said, and thought, Probably a little mentition (lying) too, as occasion demands.
“So who was this Telemetry bloke, anyway?”
“The son of Odysseus and Penelope. No doubt you’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses,” I said, hoping that he certainly had not, because after all he was only in grade 9. “Stephen Dedalus was the Telemachus type in that. In the Odyssey, Mentor was Telemachus’s tutor, but actually Mentor was Athena in disguise.”
“Athena!” Marcus got up and dumped himself into a chair at the table, setting his Coke next to my tea. “Athena was a female. (I think I knew a girl called Athena…) Are you saying this Mentor was really a Womentor?”
“Better that than a Minotaur, anyway.”
“Oh, with a nice girl, you always want more than a minotaur two,” Marcus said, and had a slug of his Coke. “So what you’re saying is that mentee is not a real word.”
“It’s a real word,” I said, “because people use it and understand it, but it’s a backformation. Like tase from Taser.”
“Shocking. So you’re the minotaur and I’m the manatee. Oh, the huge manatee!” He threw his arms in the air in mock tragedy.
“Well, at least you’ll have mentee-fresh breath,” I said.
This seemed to provoke a recollection of something; Marcus started checking his pockets. As he did so, he asked, “And where, then, did this name Mentor come from?”
“It seems it came from the Greek word for ‘intent, spirit, purpose, action,’ that sort of thing: mentos.”
“Marvellous!” Marcus said with an evil little smile, producing something from his pocket that I only too late identified as a roll of Mentos. Before I could stop him, he emptied it into his still-mostly-full bottle of Coke. A geyser of foam shot towards the ceiling. As it drenched me and my tea, he shouted, “A fountain of knowledge!”
Thanks to David Moody for suggesting mentor.