OED March revision update: just what the doctor ordered

OED March revision update: just what the doctor ordered

This quarter’s OED update includes a revised entry for doctor. The word today immediately brings to mind white coats and stethoscopes, but the early history of the word had more to do with blackboards and mortar boards.

The word comes ultimately from Latin doctor, agent noun of the verb docēre “to teach”, but appears to have come into English partly via the corresponding noun  in Anglo-Norman and Middle French. When doctor first appears in the written record of English towards the end of the 14th century, it means “teacher or instructor”. The first evidence for this sense in our revised entry comes from the Wycliffite Bible’s version of Isaiah xxxiii. 18, which asks “wher is the doctor of litil childer?” (sense 1a); the same text also uses the doctor in the closely-related meaning “an authority, an eminently learned person”, applying it to a leading scholar of Hebrew (sense 2a). Although both of these senses are now obsolete, this thread of instruction, learning, and authority continues in specific use of the title of Doctor in the Western Church, where it is applied to a small number of Christian theologians and church fathers who are regarded as especially authoritative (sense 3a)—figures like St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.

More familiar to most is use of doctor in the context of university education. As the etymology suggests, the doctoral degree originated in the medieval universities of Europe as a licence to teach, and was originally awarded for advanced scholarship in the faculties of theology (or divinity), law, and medicine. The expressions Doctor of Law, Doctor of Divinity, and Doctor of Medicine all go back to the Middle English period.

Doctor of Philosophy, however, is a more recent arrival in the language, and revising the entry for doctor has given us the opportunity to document its interesting origins, history, and evolution. In medieval universities, only the faculties of Theology, Medicine, and Law could confer the title doctor, while the highest degree awarded in the Faculty of Arts was that of Magister Artium (Master of Arts). In the mid-17th century, German universities moved to address this inconsistency by replacing the Magister Artium with the Philosophiae Doctor or Doctor of Philosophy, the name of the new qualification reflecting the fact that the Faculty of Arts was known in these institutions as the philosophische Fakultät (Philosophical Faculty). Our earliest example of Doctor of Philosophy in English fits with this picture nicely: dating from 1651, it relates to a person awarded this degree by the University of Heidelberg.

Today, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy is conferred for independent postgraduate research in almost any academic discipline, not only in the arts. Again, we have the German university system to thank for this. By the early 19th century, the philosophische Fakultät had come to house all subjects in the sciences and humanities, and soon began to require original contributions to research, as demonstrated by a dissertation, for the award of Doctor of Philosophy in any of these fields. The research-based PhD (or D.Phil.) on the German model was subsequently adopted in many parts of the English-speaking world: the first Doctor of Philosophy graduated from Yale University in 1861, and a consortium of U.K. universities finally agreed to adopt the degree in 1917, twenty years after the entry for doctor had first appeared in the OED. Doctor of Philosophy is now comprehensibly treated in the phrases section of our revised entry, consistent with its increased prominence in English, including an extensive note detailing the development of the term that brings the story up to date. It has been particularly gratifying to ensure that the Dictionary can now satisfy the curiosity of anyone who, like me, has always wondered why it’s possible to become a Doctor of Philosophy by studying a subject other than philosophy.

The most significant development in the history of doctor in modern times has been the rise in prominence of the sense “physician or medical practitioner”. From the 15th century, the word was being used regularly for “a person who is extremely proficient in any of certain specified branches of knowledge”; law and theology (senses 5a and 5b respectively) as well as medicine (sense 6a). However, use in the first two domains has declined steadily over the past century, thanks on the one hand to changes in the British legal system and associated training, and on the other to the general secularization of society: both are now marked rare in the revised entry.

In contrast, from the 18th century onwards doctor has been used with increasing frequency to denote a doctor of medicine. This is clear from corpus data.

Early English Books Online corpus (c.1500-1700)Bodleian corpus (1800-1920)Oxford English Corpus (1920-)

In the period 1500-1700, the ten nouns most often collocated with doctor are all firmly within the domains of faith and education: pastor, teacher, student, father, professor, rabbi, master, preacher, divine, and saint. Results for the same search during period 1800-1920 shows a noticeable move in a medical direction: although nouns relating to religion are best represented (pastor, clergyman, parson, and bishop), three of the top ten noun collocates of doctor at this date are from the field of medicine, including the most common of all, nurse. Data from the 20th century shows that more than half of the items on this list now fall into the category of medicine, and none at all into the realm of religion. This indicates a significant shift in the semantic centre of gravity of the word since the OED’s entry for doctor was first published in 1897.

The structure of our entry now reflects the prominence and productivity of the medical sense of doctor, with the sense denoting a physician and the many senses developed from it now organized into their own branch of the entry. These senses are surprisingly many and varied. Over the years, doctor has been applied figuratively to all manner of things believed to improve or preserve physical health, from a wind considered to have health-giving, refreshing, or cleansing properties (sense 7b) to a concoction of rum and milk drunk as a hangover cure (7c). In fact, almost anything considered beneficial to health could be called doctor, including sunshine, good food, time, laughter, and nature. William Bullein’s recommendation for optimal wellbeing in 1558 involved treatment by not one figurative physician, but three, “the first called doctor diet, the seconde doctor quiet, the thirde doctor mery man”.

Other senses of doctor now updated in this release reflect less complimentary views of the medical profession. In 17th century slang, loaded dice were known as doctors, and to put the doctor upon a person was to trick or dupe them. The word could also be used in the 18th century of any of various substances used to ‘doctor’ or adulterate food or drink, especially with a view to passing it off as a superior product. Researching evidence for this sense was a voyage of discovery into the devious money-making schemes of the food and drink industry, and our quotations paragraph records a litany of crimes against the consumer, with bakers adding alum to flour to whiten their bread, publicans adding chemicals to cheap liquor to fake a higher alcohol content, and vintners adding boiled fermented grape must to cheap wine to mask its harsh flavour and pale colour. Buyer beware!

Back in the more familiar world of current colloquial English, new quotations have now been added to illustrate the use of doctor for a person employed to give specialist advice or help, a sense which continues to be productive as the second element of compounds like PC doctor, car doctor, and of course, spin doctor. As well bringing our coverage of this usage up to date, our revised entry traces it back as far as 1857, when George Stephenson’s efforts to advise on the upkeep of his local pumping machines earned him a reputation as an engine-doctor. Our recent revision has also allowed us to include in the OED for the first time one extremely common colloquial use of the word: ‘the doctor’s’ as a term for the place or establishment where a doctor or GP may be consulted—a doctor’s office or surgery—as in the expression to go to the doctor’s. Although new to the dictionary, this sense is far from new to the language—examples in print are recorded from as early as 1808.

Besides doctor, the latest OED release features updated entries for a wealth of words with interesting histories, from Dr. Feelgood and Dr Pepper to the famous catchphrase of a certain cartoon wabbit (doc n./1). Until the next quarter, That’s all folks!

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