There was an interesting Facebook conversation among a group of Nigerians last week on who, between medical doctors and PhDs, are more deserving to be addressed as “Dr.” I’ve written about this before, so let me share my thoughts once again with people for whom this sort of thing is interesting.
By convention, both medical doctors and PhDs can prefix “Dr.” to their names. But, here, there’s a clash between etymology (origin and development of words) and pragmatics (how words are actually used by speakers of a language).
The word “doctor” was historically used for teachers because it’s derived from the Latin verb docēre, which means “to teach.” So “doctor of philosophy” meant “teacher of philosophy,” where “philosophy” meant what we now know as the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, that is, disciplines other than law, medicine, and theology which, as I showed two weeks ago, used to be called the “learned professions.”
To insist that words must mean what they always meant from the beginning is called etymological fallacy. Language doesn’t work that way.
In contemporary uses, people tend to first think of medical doctors before PhDs when the term “doctor” is mentioned. For instance, when I visited Nigeria after completing my PhD years ago, several of my mother’s friends came to ask that I give them medicines for all sorts of illnesses. When they heard that I had become a “doctor,” they assumed that I was a medical doctor.
I will never forget my mother’s response to her friends. She said, “This doctor doesn’t treat illnesses; he cures ignorance.” She said this even when she didn’t know that, etymologically, “doctor” meant one who teaches, in other words, one who cures ignorance, although I think it’s a bit arrogant to assume that anyone one person, however knowledgeable, can cure all ignorance—or that you need a doctorate to cure ignorance.
But the point is that modern usage associates “Dr.” more with medical practitioners than it does with PhDs.
That’s why the New York Times style guide reserves “Dr.” only for medical doctors, and uses “Mr.” for doctoral degree holders. If the doctoral degree holder’s qualification is relevant to the story, the paper would write something like, “Mr. Smith, who has a doctorate in physics, said…”
Other American newspapers suffix “PhD” to the names of doctoral degree holders in news reports, as in, “John Smith, Ph.D., said it was unwise to let that happen.”