Another dot in the blogosphere?

Doctor who?

Posted on: July 30, 2021

Doctor Who figbarf by Ryan Howerter, on Flickr
Doctor Who figbarf” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Ryan Howerter

If someone asked, “Is there a doctor here?” and I was present, I would not say I was one even though I am. I have a Ph.D., not an M.D.

The meaning and popular use of “doctor” has changed over the centuries. Both Merriam-Webster and this etymology site describe how doctor used to refer to accomplished teachers.

From Merriam-Webster:

The word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

From Etymology Online:

Meaning “holder of the highest degree in a university, one who has passed all the degrees of a faculty and is thereby empowered to teach the subjects included in it” is from late 14c. Hence “teacher, instructor, learned man; one skilled in a learned profession” (late 14c.).

This might explain why some people refuse to acknowledge that a person with a Ph.D. is a professional and a doctor. One of the most public spats about Dr Jill Biden’s doctorate was summarised in this Forbes piece.

As a Ph.D. doctor, my diagnosis is that the person who wrote the original put-down was a misogynist who was comfortable in flaunting his ignorance. He reinforced his own bias that a social science like education was not as valuable as a hard science.

According to this WaPo article, Dr Biden took 15 years to get her doctorate. I needed four years full-time to get a Ph.D. It takes a lot of time, effort, sacrifice, heartache, and determination to get one. 

The lay understanding of doctor might have shifted to medical professionals. But universities still award doctorates as their highest degrees in many other fields. The origin of doctor is rooted in education. Why not learn something old as something new and educate yourself?


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