Doctor in Latin means "teacher", with (I think) connotations of being learnèd or highly educated, as in Philosophiæ Doctor. How did it acquire its modern English meaning of a licensed physician?

Owen Barfield, in History in English Words, p. 100, suggests that the character of Ancient Roman society, with its emphasis on physicality rather than introspection, somehow influenced the word "doctor" to become specialized to "a teacher of physical health" in modern English.

Etymonline, apparently summarizing the OED, reports that Latin doctor first came to mean one who had received the highest degree from a university, hence qualified to teach; then any professional licensed by passing exams; and then became specialized to mean one licensed to practice medicine.

Can anyone provide more detail about how doctor came to its present meaning? In particular, is there any truth in Barfield's suggestion that doctor ever, in Latin or English, was understood as "a teacher of physical health"?

  • The OED gives the same story as Etymonline (or should that be the other way around?!). But I wonder if its use for all medical practitioners actually stems from the earlier need to differentiate between the learnèd medical doctor and the decidedly unlearnèd surgeon who was (sometimes still is) referred to as Mister?
    – Penelope
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 6:39
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    Try calling an English surgeon Dr rather than Mr (or Manuscript) and see what happens to you! Better still, don’t. The OED is the definitive source here, with dates and referenced quotations for each shade of meaning. For a real amused insight into semantic floppiness, follow the evolution of nescius into nice! Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 6:53
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    In the linked quotation Barfield does not claim "that the modern English meaning grew out of the character of Ancient Roman society". What he says is that "now" (i.e., in modern English) the word has taken on this meaning.
    – fdb
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 9:49
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    How did undertaker come to mean "one who prepares cadavers for burial"? How did solicitor come to mean "legal advisor"? (though I understand it has a different meaning in other parts of the Anglosphere). How did executor and executioner come to mean such completely different things? Language does what it does, and the path is not always obvious.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 17:19
  • @fdb The first sentence, "The difference between Greek and Roman character…is evident in…many English words," suggested to me that Barfield means that English "doctor" (along with "discipline", etc.) still carries the imprint of the Roman worldview or that the Roman worldview somehow influenced the meaning that it took on in English. Many details are unclear, though. I'll reword the question now to remove "grew out of". Do you think the new version is more accurate?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 20:10


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