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Rosie Right

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Sometimes what seems to be a simple question opens a cauldron of confusion and disagreement. One such query came to me when a reader asked why persons with Ph.D.s insist on being called doctor when members of the medical profession are the ones entitled to that prefix.

As a copy editor who uses the Associated Press Stylebook, I turned immediately to the entry in that manual. The first sentence says, "Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, doctor of medicine, doctor of optometry, doctor of osteopathy or doctor of podiatric medicine degree. … If appropriate in the context, Dr. also may be used on first reference before the names of individuals who hold other types of doctoral degrees."

This seemed clear enough, but the first Ph.D. to whom I spoke about this was insulted. Why should such a rule be in place when M.D.s are come-latelies? The title doctor was long in place before the healing technicians began to use it, he claimed.

It was time for the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes many definitions under doctor, the first of which is "A teacher, instructor; one who gives instruction in some branch of knowledge, or inculcates opinions or principles." The first citation under this definition is dated 1387.

But wait! The sixth definition begins: "A doctor of medicine; in popular current use, applied to any medical practitioner." The first citation of this meaning comes from 1377.

There is much discussion of this problem, including the somewhat snide statement by one Ph.D. that institutions uncertain of their status make sure that teachers call each other doctor to show the qualifications of the faculty.

This is one case where the changes in language made by popular usage should perhaps be honored. As several blogs comment: "Who would want a professor of medieval history to respond to a plea of: 'Is there a doctor in the house?'"

But if those who want to stick with the medical meaning of doctor object to the inclusion of Ph.D.s, it would be well for them to not to get too conceited. OED continues its description of medical practitioner thus: "Also, a wizard or medicine man in a primitive tribe."

Let Rosie hear from you by e-mail (rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com), by telephone (358-0825, ext. 322) or by regular mail (c/o Style Weekly, 1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, VA 23230).

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