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No, Joseph Epstein, Doctors aren't only Physicians, and Jill Biden earned her Title: Use It

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Jill Biden
Jill Biden
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Essayist and writer Joseph Epstein took a shot at incoming First Lady Jill Biden at the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. In his oped, the former editor of The American Scholar urged her to stop having herself referred to as "Dr. Jill Biden" on the grounds, he said, that she is not a medical doctor, that her doctorate is in education, and that doctorates are not worth much any more because diluted. He referred to her as "kiddo."

Epstein said you shouldn't refer to yourself as "Dr." unless you have delivered a baby, displaying shocking ignorance both of the history of the English language and of who delivers babies.

The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the word "doctor" is from the Latin "docere," to teach. The word emerges in English around 1300 with the sense of a theologian, a doctor of divinity, who was licensed to teach his subject by a university. It is from the Old French doctour.

In 1387, John Trevisa (fl. 1342 - 1402) in his translation of the Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden from the Latin, said, "Seynt Austyn à e firste doctour of Englischemen." Saint Austin, or more properly St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604) had been a Benedictine monk sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring the English to Christ. So Trevisa is using the term here as in the phrase "doctor of the church."

And here is another sense of the term:

    "One who, by reason of his skill in any branch of knowledge, is competent to teach it, or whose attainments entitle him to express an authoritative opinion; an eminently learned man. archaic."

Around 1391, Chaucer in his Treatise on the Astrolabe, said it was "An introductorie aftur the statutz of owre doctours." That is, by these doctors he meant astronomers.

In 1400, the Morte D'Arthur (Death of King Arthur) spoke of "Dukes and duspers and doctours noble."

In 1510 Thomas More used the phrase in a translation about the life of Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, "He scrupulously sought out all the famous doctours of his tyme."

Here it obviously means scholar.

Philosophers and humanists with the highest university degrees were also called doctors. In 1665 a piece in Philosophical Transactions referred to "One of the most zealous Doctors of the contrary Opinion."

It was not until the late 1500s that the term "doctor" began being with any regularity to physicians, who had until that time been called "leech."

So historically speaking, educators like Dr. Jill Biden had first dibs on the title "doctor." The medical doctors saved my life, and I love them, but they got the title second hand.

It isn't, of course, that Epstein is just wrong about the history of usage. (Or rather, he is being a contrarian, since he surely knows that history and chose to disregard it).

It is that he is being sexist. I don't remember reading an op-ed by Epstein castigating Henry Kissinger for being called Dr. Henry Kissinger. I did a search at Proquest for that string in newspapers over the past few decades and got nearly 2,000 hits.

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Juan Cole is an American academic and commentator on the modern Middle East and South Asia.  He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Since 2002, he has written a weblog, Informed Comment (more...)

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