Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The potions and the motions

A couple of esteemed colleagues on the east coast are weighing in on one of those on-again-off-again usage issues: Who gets to be called "Doctor" in news stories? Interesting question that bears some study here, in that it reflects both the social functions of news language* and the argument to rectitude that language disputants like to invoke -- not just what's appropriate, but what's authoritatively "right."

I have no intention of "correcting" these folks, much less suggesting that they're the sort of ill-informed language bullies that stalk journalism and academe with roughly equal frequency. John and Bill are not just thoughtful public advocates of the editing cause, they're the sort of slots who regularly lace up their shoes and step in front of the peevish firehose of words and facts and implications that we fondly call "news." But I'm increasingly of the camp that holds that style decisions need to be acknowledged for what they are: pretty good approximations, more or less grounded in reality, that should probably be questioned a lot more often than they are. So in that sense, let's look at "Dr."

Acknowledging (or at least suggesting) that it's a bit extreme, Bill lays out essentially the AP Stylebook position: Doctors are people who, well, doctor people ("if you can't fix a broken leg..."). And this is a case of style getting serious**. John counters that the "style" loophole -- as AP puts it, go ahead and call other doctors "doctor" if it's "appropriate within the context" -- is so squirrelly as to render the so-called "rule" more or less irrelevant. Let's go back a little farther and see if there's any ground for saying what it means, in good old English, to call somebody "doctor."

On the evidence, the physicians lose. The OED's first recorded cite of "doctor" meaning "doctor of medicine" is in 1377 -- same as the first cite for "one who is proficient in knowledge of law" and two years later than "one who is proficient in knowledge of theology." That's three decades after "one who, by reason of his skill in any branch of knowledge, is competent to teach it" and seven decades after "the Doctors of the Church, certain early ‘fathers’ distinguished by their eminent learning." So if you're a believer in a single true meaning for English words, this one goes to the eggheads -- not the people who can fix broken legs.

That's said with apologies to all the LPNs and the like who can fix damaged limbs with some celerity, which gets to a more pertinent question: Why does news language reserve certain titles for certain people? Is it because MDs do more important stuff than lawyers and architects and copy editors? Or because they spent more years in school than other people who fix broken legs? Or because journalists think that doctors will revoke their hemoglobin or something if they aren't accorded appropriate respect?

At which point Bill has a pretty good suggestion: If you don't use courtesy titles regularly, why use them for this one small part of the honorific spectrum? And there our disputants seem to be in agreement; as John notes, for an egalitarian society, we sure have a hefty array of ranks and titles and degrees to be kept in order.

So there's the best solution. Throw out all courtesy titles, unless there's some reason not to. Do you want to be the bold editor who declares that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't a real doctor? Go ahead -- but don't offer to rewrite someone's stylebook unless you're willing to spend a few shifts taking the phone calls that go with it. Style is a social construct. If it was math, it'd be boring, and we'd all be out of a job.

* Don't kid yourselves too hard. "Negro" was hanging around the AP Stylebook until about 2004.
** Not nearly as serious as the fairly routine decisions about the point in a news story at which religion is introduced as a potential motive.


Blogger TootsNYC said...

In a former incarnation, I was the Copy Editor of Psychology Today. Before I worked at the magazine, they had established a style of NEVER using "Dr." or "Doctor." Nor, for that matter did they use "M.D.," "Ph.D.," or "M.S."

Because their readers were mostly psychologists (no M.D.) but sometimes psychiatrists (yes M.D.), pediatricians, graduate-student researchers, non-student researchers, etc., they were under a lot of pressure to include degree, or use the term "Dr." before the names of psychologists.

In self defense, they said:
"We will describe your job. That will tell people what degrees you have (or don't have). That's enough. Leave us alone."

I liked that style. You ended up with:
psychologist Bill Jones
researcher Amanda Pikowski
psychiatrist Beemon Williams
dentist Young Kim
family counselor Keesha Johnson

And on second reference:
Jones says
Pikowski found
Williams wrote
Kim says
Johnson recommends

12:50 PM, March 20, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

That strikes me as really sensible, and it'd be nice if more newspapers would decide they didn't have to be intimidated by degree-holders. And, yeah, if you can't figure out what the degree is from the description, it's probably irrelevant.

If we make some headway on this one, perhaps we can go after "the Rev." next.

1:32 PM, March 20, 2008  

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