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Doctor – Podictionary Word of the Day

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I have been told by one person with lots of post graduate education that PhD stands for “pig-headed determination.”

Another less charitable soul explained it as “piled higher and deeper.”

In truth PhD is the abbreviation of Philosophiae Doctor, which is the Latin for “Doctor of Philosophy.”

These degrees are the highest that are awarded by universities and originally the title was given because once a candidate had achieved this level he—and back in the 1300s it was always he—was qualified to teach.

In fact at first doctor meant “teacher.”

The root of the word doctor is from the Latin word docere, meaning “to teach” and also unexpectedly shows up in the roots of the word docile because someone who is docile is easy to teach, and also the word document, which was originally the thing from which you took information that was to be taught.

Some sources point to an Indo-European root dek meaning “to take” or “to accept.”

The sense as it moved from accepting to teaching was that a teacher caused one to accept information.

Right from the entry of the word doctor into English in it also referred to physicians.  So there has always been that mild confusion as to whether someone with the title doctor actually has patients.

Although the verb to doctor must have originated with a sense that a doctor changes things for the better, the sense of doctoring things for the worse emerged first in the written record.  A meaning of “patch up” and “set to rights” isn’t seen before 1829 but doctoring wine shows up in 1820.  Altering someone’s appearance “doctoring his face” comes through 1774.

Like doctor the word physician came to English with the French of the Norman Conquest and so had to wait until after 700 or 800 years ago before being called an English word.

Skilled medical personnel before that were known as leeches in Old English.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

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