Not That Kind of Doctor

There’s an obnoxious piece in today’s LA Times about Jill Biden’s use of the honorific “doctor,” and it’s gotten me thinking about what the term means, and when it can legitimately be applied. The article is obnoxious, in my opinion, because it trades in both misogyny and anti-intellectualism, implying that it’s somehow worthy of ridicule for the nation’s “second lady” to call herself “doctor,” since she’s not a physician. There’s even a quote from an “authority” on the issue:

“My feeling is if you can’t heal the sick, we don’t call you doctor,” said Bill Walsh, copy desk chief for the Washington Post’s A section and the author of two language books.

Wow. A copy desk chief. For a newspaper. (You know, that thing you don’t read any more.) Well, the truth is that Jill Biden isn’t a physician; she has a PhD in Education from the University of Maryland. And in my book, if she wants to be called “doctor,” then that’s what we should call her.

This idea that “doctor” refers only to medical professionals is a relatively new development in the history of our language. The word itself derives from the Latin docere, meaning “to teach,” and therefore “doctor” essentially means “teacher.” Its first applications were to the “church fathers,” such as Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory, but also spread in the Middle Ages to refer to scholars more generally. Physicians also came be referred to as “doctor” (Chaucer calls one of his pilgrims a “Doctur of Phesike”), but I would hazard to guess that the use of “doctor” in such cases was meant to index a physician’s advanced learning, and not the practice of healing. You have to get fairly deep into the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition to find this meaning:

6. a. spec. A doctor of medicine; in popular current use, applied to any medical practitioner. Also, a wizard or medicine-man in a primitive tribe.

I have to admit, that second sentence makes me smile. Jill Biden’s use of “doctor,” I imagine, derives from the fourth definition listed in the OED:

4. a. One who, in any faculty or branch of learning, has attained to the highest degree conferred by a University; a title originally implying competency to teach such subject or subjects, but now merely regarded as a certificate of the highest proficiency therein.

That “highest degree” in our educational system is the PhD, and we’ve already established that Dr. Biden has one.

With that all said, I have to admit that I’ve got one, too. A PhD, that is. However, I’m not all that interested in having anybody call me “doctor,” but I consider this a personal choice. For starters, I’m a Quaker, and we’ve historically eschewed honorifics that imply superiority/inferiority in human interaction (the practice of removing hats in certain company has likewise been rejected). I also associate the use of “doctor” for PhDs with certain regions, like the east coast or the south, neither of which is where I’m from.* I used to ask students to just call me “Kory,” but I’ve come to appreciate how uncomfortable some students are with addressing teachers by first name. So now I just ask students to use whatever seems appropriate to them: “Kory” or “Professor Ching” or just “Professor.” (I prefer “professor” to “doctor,” I guess, because that refers to my job, and not to my educational status.)

But Dr. Biden is in a very different situation. She’s married to the VPOTUS, and appears to be the first “second lady” to continue her own career while her spouse is in office. She’s also associated with an administration that promises to undo much of the denigration of knowledge and expertise wrought over the last eight years. As Obama said in his inaugural speech, “we will restore science to its rightful place.” It may be only symbolic, but I think having the spouse of the Vice President admit to being knowledgable and accomplished is a good thing.

* I also don’t want people in restaurants or airplanes looking to me if someone has a heart attack, just because I used the “doctor” title while making my reservation.


5 thoughts on “Not That Kind of Doctor

  1. I like how the dictionary equated medicine men with “primitive tribes.” I guess there aren’t enough American Indians left to voice a problem with that.

  2. I think part of what might be causing the hubbub is that in the House and Senate most people don’t use “Dr.” as a title, even if they have a ph.d, but medical doctors (like Bill Frist) have used their Dr. and that’s become the standard (that only M.D.’s continue to use their Dr.).

    The difference in the case of Dr. Biden is that she continues to hold a position that makes her particular ph.d. relevant while people who have ph.d’s and are currently serving in the US House and Senate usually aren’t simultaneously working as professors or lead researchers.

    Also, though I am not a title person in the classroom, as a woman, I perfectly understand that there are times when my title will be important to me. If I were Dr. Biden, I’d want my title used as a reminder that my career is not “wife of the VP,” even if that was an important part of my professional and personal identity.

  3. I’m with C… on this, in that I would definitely be using the “Dr” (and wanting other people to do it too) if I were Dr. Biden, precisely because it is a reminder that her identity is not solely “wife of the VP.” And I think it is exactly that reason that she’s getting so much flack for it. She’s not content to just be “Mrs. Biden,” and this is somehow insulting to Washington. Why? Because we haven’t come that much of a long way, baby.

  4. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and Joe Biden all have juris doctorate degrees; is it appropriate to refer to them as ‘Doctor’? I think that the news organizations’ standards for the use of the word doctor are conservative only because there are so many JDs and PhDs that the prefix might become confusing if anyone in those fields could start using it.


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