PPFF #119

Probably a year ago, I covered very briefly, the literal meaning of the word ‘doctor’. Some of us might even remember that it was a derivative noun form of the Latin verb ‘docere’ as in ‘to teach’; the original meaning of the word was hence ‘teacher’, first catholic religious teachers (at papally approved institutions), then starting with the University of Paris in the 12th century any teachers or scholars in European educational institutions later on – in fact, a doctorate degree ‘licentia docendi’ was simply a licence to teach (think PGCE, sort of, but not really). Now this much, you may find in standard dictionaries that purport to provide word origins and indeed this was the  extent of the previous PPFF. Double-dipping, recycling or re-run you may hasten to think, but I assure you, readers, this is anything but.

That little etymology only goes so far as to explain why any Tom, Dick or Harry with a doctorate degree can demand (and fail) to be referred to as, Dr, well err, Tom, Dick or Harry, as in Teacher Tom etc. (and in case there are female equal rights activists among you, replace those three names with Jane, Beth and Mary – yes I digress; a lot). But have you ever wondered why physicians (and dentists now apparently in Britain – really? Yeah. Absurd but true) are commonly known as doctors?

If that mystery ever bugged you, keeping you tossing and turning at night, worry no more, because I’ve already googled that for you and solved the mystery and the explanation I have to offer you is rather definitive.

So how did this word evolve to mean ‘physician’?

We can find one clue in the well known 14th century Middle English literature called The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, in which one of the characters is known as Doctour of Phisik; in modern English, that would be ‘Doctor of Medicine. But this isn’t the origin of the word ‘doctor’ to mean physician, as practitioners or teachers of any subject were referred to as doctors e.g. doctor of theology or law. In fact, if you read the general prologue introducing this character in the said book, he was a healer; one versed in ‘natural magic’ (i.e. science) and astronomy. In this context, ‘doctor’ is still being used in the original sense of the word. If anything, ‘Doctour of Phisik’ was probably a formal way to say ‘physician’ as ‘physic’ used to mean medicine and the word ‘fisicien’ had existed around 13th century  to mean ‘healer’.

So, now the question then is, ‘when did the transition occur’?

In search of this answer, I came across an opinions column, humorously titled “Are Physicians Really Doctors?“, published by  Wall Street Journals in 1995, in which the author claimed that teachers/scholars in Europe were referred to as doctors for over 1,000 years whereas it was not until the 18th century when ancient Scottish universities first started to call their medical graduates ‘doctors’, their justification being based on the length of their studies; their graduates generally had earned bachelor’s degrees before admission to medical studies (something that is still practised to this day in the US). Ergo, it was argued that they were entitled to the honorific in the same manner as scholars. And since the 18th century Scotland (arguably unlike today’s) was a very influential intellectual powerhouse, this practice became widely adopted especially in the US in the 19th century, and I speculate that since the US became pretty much the centre of the western world in many ways (I don’t enjoy saying this either but it is what it is), we now use the word ‘doctor’, primarily to mean ‘physicians’ (or surgeons even).

There is a European country, however, where they uphold the sanctity of academics above physicians; in common parlance Italians often give any university graduates the honorific of ‘Dottore’.

But here’s the real, ‘real’ twist in all of this. Do you know by which common English term, doctors were known before either ‘physician’ or ‘doctor’ took over?

‘Leeches’ and their practice was known as “Leechcraft”. Look it up. Absolutely true.

Have a healthy Friday.