March 21, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: PhD, MD, JD, and Dr. & Sir, Miss, or Ma’am

Posted in Dr., Ma'am, Miss, Ms, should PhDs be called Doctor at 5:56 am by dlseltzer

Last week’s discussion of Ms, Mrs., and Miss prompted other questions about what we should call people in different situations. So I decided to answer some of these questions in today’s wlut.

Tip 1: PhD, MD, JD, and Dr.

A reader writes:

I have a follow-up question about terms of address.  When I’m filling in online forms with a drop-down list, I tend to select “Ms” rather than Dr., although I have a PhD.  I think this results from being told many years ago that outside the academic setting, “Dr.” implies that you are a physician (read “a real doctor”).  What are your thoughts?

We talked about this quite extensively a couple of years ago, but I believe it is time for another go. And I’ll make it briefer this time. But, my stand is still the same.

I think PhDs worked hard for their degrees and have earned the title, Doctor. While some may confuse the MD doctor with the PhD doctor, that is easily cleared up with the phrase, “Not that kind of doctor.”

But the issue is still contentious, and there are some quite heated exchanges around the Internet. People need to relax a little bit. I’ll just add one bit of trivia: in Latin, docere (which is the word ‘doctor’ comes from) means to teach—it does not mean to heal. I know that while ‘doctor’ is the norm for physicians and other holders of doctoral degrees in academia, outside of the academic setting, it is not universally used. But frankly, I don’t know why not. The looniest thing I found on this topic was a school of thought was that PhDs should be referred to as ‘Dr.’ and MDs should be referred to using ‘Doctor.’ That’s just nuts.

MD, PsyD, EdD, PhD, DMD, PharmD, ScD, DDS, DVM, DO, OD, DPhil, and others—all are doctoral degrees, and the degree holder has earned the right to use the term, ‘doctor.’

But what, you might ask, about JDs?

Wow! If you think the issue of whether PhDs should be called ‘doctor’ is contentious, that’s nothing when compared to the contention over whether JDs should be called ‘doctor.’

JDs, holders of Juris Doctor degrees, are lawyers. Well, that kind of says it all right there. Only kidding. Poor lawyers—they get such a bum rap. The argument goes that law school is considerably shorter that medical school and residency and considerably shorter than the time it takes to earn a PhD, so they should not be considered ‘doctors.’

The American Bar Association (ABA) thinks otherwise and says so in what may be considered fighting words:

WHEREAS, the acquisition of a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree requires from 84 to 90 semester hours of post baccalaureate study and the Doctor of Philosophy degree usually requires 60 semester hours of post baccalaureate study along with the writing of a dissertation, the two degrees shall be considered as equivalent degrees for educational employment purposes…

 Okay, so it takes longer to obtain a law degree than it does to obtain a PhD? Really? (By the way Juris Doctor and Doctor of Jurisprudence are evidently synonymous.)

I’m not going to step into this fray. JDs are doctorates, too, so the ‘doctor’ honorific applies to them, too.

So if your degree has the word, ‘doctor’ somewhere in it, as far as I am concerned, you’re entitled to use ‘doctor.’

Tip 2: Female equivalent to sir: miss or ma’am

A reader writes:

So what is the protocol for calling a waitress or waiter?

I guess I say “sir” for the man or “waiter.”

For the woman, I usually say “Miss.”  I don’t say “Ms.”  But is “Miss” the proper counterpart to “sir?”

Waited with bated breath.

First, I would say that the term, ‘waitress’ is a little bit old-fashioned and is not needed anymore. We now use ‘actor’  and ‘host’ to refer to both males and females; these are considered gender-neutral terms, and we no longer use ‘actress’ or ‘hostess.’ In the same way, I think it’s okay to use ‘waiter’ to refer to both male and female servers, and we don’t need the term, ‘waitress.’

So, that’s out of the way.

Okay, what is the protocol for getting a waiter’s attention? I read on a waiter’s blog that the best thing to do to catch your server’s eye and raise your eyebrows. I don’t know—there is a risk that a gesture like that will be misinterpreted. You don’t want your waiter to think you are trying to pick him or her up.

Another suggestion was to hold up your hand (but don’t wave it around wildly). I agree with not waving your hand around wildly, but I don’t how effective the upraised hand would be, and you would bound to get weary if it didn’t work quickly.

I agree with the writer that ‘sir’ is appropriate for men.

I guess ‘miss’ is the female equivalent of ‘sir.’  ‘Ma’am’ (short for madam) would also be appropriate. However, some women object to being referred to as ma’am if they believe they are not old enough. ‘Miss’ and ‘ma’am’ both have connotations of age. Interesting that ‘sir’ does not, isn’t it? Ms is great because it has no association with age or marital status. However, I agree with the writer that Ms without a name following sounds awkward at best.

Ms, could I have a glass of water?

I wish it didn’t sound so awkward to me. Let’s hope that  it is more universally adopted.

So when does a miss become a ma’am? I don’t have a clue. I tried googling the question, and found a lot of upset women of all ages who believed that being called ma’am was an insult.

I was going to suggest just going with ‘miss,’ but I found a lot of people unhappy with that—evidently, older women think being called ‘miss’ feels ridiculous.

Miss Manners, in 1990, said

Any lady old enough to do her own banking business may be safely  addressed as ‘Ma’am.’

However, after reading some of the rants and seeing the deep-seated hatred of ‘ma’am,’ I’d stay away from it. I think the best bet would not to call the female server anything:

Excuse me, could I have a glass of water?

Much better.


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