18 December 2020
The next first lady of the United States, Jill Biden, holds a doctorate in education. She completed her degree from the University of Delaware in 2007. When President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month, Jill Biden will be the first-ever first lady with a doctoral degree.
She is widely known as "Dr. Jill Biden." This is not unusual. In English, the word "Doctor" (Dr.) can appear before the name of a person who holds a doctoral degree or a medical degree.
But a recent opinion article published in the Wall Street Journal newspaper disagreed with the custom. The title of the article, by American writer Joseph Epstein, is "Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D."
"M.D." is short for a doctor of medicine.
Epstein begins his article like this: "Madame First Lady--Mrs. Biden--Jill-- kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the "Dr. before your name?
Epstein argues that Jill Biden does not deserve to be called "Dr. Biden" because she is not a medical doctor. He notes, "A wise man once said that no one should call himself "Dr." unless he has delivered a child."
Reaction to the article came quickly.
Supporters of Epstein's argument agreed that people with "teaching degrees" should not want people to call them "Doctor." One conservative television presenter, Tucker Carlson, said Dr. Biden is as much of a doctor as Dr. Pepper is. Dr. Pepper is a popular brand of soft drink.
Critics of Epstein's article, however, expressed surprise that the Wall Street Journal let such a story be published. They said they found it to be offensive, sexist and, more simply, pointless.
In a post on Instagram, former first lady Michelle Obama wrote: "Right now, we're all seeing what happens to so many professional women, whether their titles are Dr., Ms., Mrs., or even First Lady: All too often, our accomplishments are met with skepticism, even derision."
Another former first lady, Hillary Clinton, used fewer words. She tweeted: "Her name is Dr. Jill Biden. Get used to it."
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris reacted to the article during a television appearance this week, saying, "It's not the American way."
Jill Biden offered her own response Thursday, when she and President-elect Biden appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She said the Epstein article surprised her. She said her doctoral degree is one of the things that she is most proud of. She added, "I worked so hard for it."
Around the world, social media users who hold doctoral degrees in fields such as history, education and mathematics changed their Twitter names to include "Dr."
Doctor versus doctor
In professional situations, it is correct to use the title "Doctor" for medical doctors as well as for people who have earned doctoral degrees. The lowercase form of the word, "doctor," is only used to describe a person who is trained and licensed to treat sick and injured people.
Jill Biden's students call her "Dr. B." At political events, she is introduced as "Dr. Jill Biden." Her Twitter account is @DrBiden. The general belief is that anyone who has earned a doctoral degree has the right to have the honorific "Dr." before their name.
But, what about in other languages?
Many are similar to English. In Spanish, for example, "Doctor" is used for people with medical degrees and doctoral degrees in other fields.
Claudia Bautista, a VOA Learning English listener from Mexico City, explains:
"In my city, the governor in chief is Dra. Claudia Sheinbaum. All people, colleagues, news...call her Dra. Sheinbaum. She is a politician, activist, writer and scientist, with a doctoral degree, that's why we call her Doctor (or Doctora)."
In Spanish, the feminine form of Doctor is "Doctora."
It is much the same in Turkish, as VOA Learning English listener Cem Utkan explains:
"Dr. is placed before the names of people who have completed their doctorate education and have the title of doctor," Utkan said. The same word is also used for medical doctors.
Some languages, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, use different honorifics for the two kinds of "Doctors." San Dao, a listener from Vietnam whose second language is English, explains:
"Vietnamese uses "bác si" (doctor) to address medical doctors who work in hospitals, dentists, or maybe veterinarians or physician. But one point worth saying is that "bác si" is not an honorific for those who have completed their Ph.D. A Ph.D holder is called "tien si" which can be clearly distinguished from "bác si."
San adds, "I believe everyone knows the next first lady is not a medical doctor. So there's no point in clarifying it."
Doctors in the news
As Epstein's opinion article and reaction to it went viral, the American dictionary Merriam-Webster offered a bit of language history. It wrote on Twitter: "The word ‘doctor' comes from the Latin word for ‘teacher."
You probably already know that VOA Learning English has a "Dr. Jill" of its own. That would be language learning specialist Jill Robbins, who earned a doctorate in applied linguistics from Georgetown University. Around the office – when we are there – many of us call her "Dr. Jill."
Yet, it is VOA's own writing style -- and the writing style of most American news organizations -- to only use "Dr." before someone's name if they are a medical doctor. That is why we call the nation's top infectious disease expert "Dr. Anthony Fauci" but do not use the honorific "Dr." when writing about Jill Biden.
I'm Ashley Thompson.
And I'm Jill Robbins.
Ashley Thompson wrote this story. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
degree - n. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university
title - n. the name given to something (such as a book, song, or movie) to identify or describe it
kiddo - n. (informal) used by an adult to speak to a young person
brand - n. a category of products that are all made by a particular company and all have a particular name
skepticism - n. an attitude of doubting the truth of something (such as a claim or statement)
derision - n. the feeling that people express when they criticize and laugh at someone or something in an insulting way
response - n. something that is said or written as a reply or answer to something
clarify - v. to make (something) clear or clearer
style - n. the way that written words are spelled, capitalized, etc.
Ph.D. - n. the highest degree given by a university or college