I am not a doctor
Much as I hesitate to disagree with Bill Walsh, valued colleague, pioneer of blogging on the copy editor’s role, and panjandrum of the copy desk at a newspaper 40 miles to the south, I can’t endorse his latest stricture on usage: “If you can't fix a broken leg, I'm not calling you ‘doctor.’"
Brother Walsh takes the hard-line view that only people with medical degrees get to be called “doctor.” That is largely in keeping with the emphasis in the Associated Press Stylebook, which says that Dr. in first reference should be limited to people with degrees in dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathy or podiatric medicine. Its reasoning is that the public tends to identify the title only with physicians.
But then the AP gets weasely, saying that if it is “appropriate within the context,” the title may be used with the names of people who hold other doctoral degrees — but not honorary doctorates.
The New York Times has essayed further on that slippery slope, saying in its stylebook: “Others with earned doctorates, like Ph.D. degrees, may choose to use the title or not; follow their preference.” Perhaps The Times writes about, and is read by, more people with earned doctorates.
The major point, and it is a difficult one for some copy editors, is that house style follows usage. Newspapers, for example, put in a long resistance to the use of gay as a synonym for homosexual. That resistance is over, because the usage has become established.
And the multiplication of people with advanced degrees since the university boom days of the 1950s and 1960s means that there are a lot more non-physicians out there who like the sound of doctor before their names. A friend who worked at the Harvard Coop years ago while completing his own dissertation was quietly amused at the pathetic vanity of the customers who had insisted on having “Ph.D.” appended to their names on their charge cards.
I did know a member of the Syracuse faculty, Paul Theiner, a Chaucerian, who disdained being called doctor. Doctors, he said, were people who probed into other people’s orifices for a living. He was Professor Theiner.
We may have thrown over British rule and rejected hereditary aristocracy, but as Americans we have never shed a love of titles and minor distinctions. The lurid and flamboyant titles that members of lodges and fraternal orders bestow upon one another come to mind. The tendency of retired military officers and public officials to hold on to General, Colonel, Senator, Governor and Ambassador is another mark of our non-egalitarian tendencies. Keep in mind as well the procession of notables who harvest honorary degrees by the bushel in exchange for numbingly platitudinous commencement speeches.
H.L. Mencken wrote in 1946: “I simply can't imagine any man of dignity accepting Pulitzer Prizes, honorary degrees or other such fripperies. Nine-tenths of them go to obvious quacks. Getting one is like being elected to the Elks.”
But since people do earn doctorates, and like to use doctor with their names, and circulate among people who also like the sound of titles, the reasonable course is to follow the practice that The Times recommends: Use the title when the person has an earned degree and the holding of that degree is relevant to the context of the article.
For the record: I was a graduate student at Syracuse, 1973-1979, leaving without completing a Ph.D. in English. I am also one of the few living Kentuckians who is not a Kentucky Colonel.