What’s So Hard about “Docent”?

By Maeve Maddox

A new museum of American Art scheduled to open in November is busily training docents. Only they are not to be called docents because the directors feel that the word is too off-putting for potential visitors. The docents are to be called gallery guides.

docent [(dō’sənt] One employed to instruct visitors about exhibits at a museum, art gallery, etc., esp. as a guide at historical homes and reconstructions. orig. and chiefly U.S. –OED

Since the use of the word docent to mean someone who guides visitors around a museum or historical site originated in the U.S., it’s ironic that a museum dedicated to American art is rejecting it. The museum directors are no doubt concerned because of such sophophobic* views as these:

I think the word ‘docent’ is a bit too obscure…

I don’t like the word “docent” or “explainer”…they are both overly academic.

Judging from the 1984 illustration of the word from the OED, English speakers in other parts of the world also recoil from the word:

 N.Z. Herald 17 Nov. i. 6/1   There is nothing indecent about docent.‥ One critic of the name—chosen for the guides at the Auckland City Art Gallery and at the Museum of Transport and Technology—says it is ugly, un-English, unfamiliar and harsh-sounding.

The word docent comes from the Latin verb docere, “to teach,” the same word that gives us doctor. (Contrary to a common “joke” about people with PhDs, academic doctors are the “real” doctors. In English, before the late sixteenth century, practitioners of medicine were more commonly called leeches than doctors.)

The word docent in the sense of “museum guide” is well established in the U.S. It is a word easily defined. For example, the Smithsonian Institute guide for communities hosting a traveling exhibit provides this definition:

What is a Docent?
Docents for Museum on Main Street (MoMS) exhibitions are tour guides who lead observation- and inquiry-based tours.

In a land that accepts words like fashionista, the word docent surely has a place.

*sophophobia: fear of learning

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28 Responses to “What’s So Hard about “Docent”?”

  • ‘nora

    Thanks for defending this useful word!

    As for doctors, in British usage even physicians are not doctors unless they have also PhDs. The same is true for veterinarians. ‘Real’ doctor jokes seems to be an American thing, too.

  • Meic

    ‘Docent’ has been trending up since the 1950s. The museum should grab a bit of the zeitgeist:

    Interestingly, ‘curate’ as a verb (check ‘curating’, to avoid the guys with the slave-collars) is picking up nicely, too.

  • johnathan

    Typo in sophophobia.

  • Maeve Maddox

    ‘nora,
    My pleasure.

    I lived in London once upon a time. I recall my surprise when I discovered that the high-priced doctors in Harley Street went by “Mr.”

  • Lawrence S. Miller

    Thanks for the lesson on which disciplines are most entitled to be called doctor, and the historically correct alternative appellation, leech, which you set forth for a physician,.

    The comment by Nora was also instructive.

    I was just in the throws of writing a narrative concerning a man who could better be called a leech than physician or doctor. Given the choice, I prefer leech in his case, and in the case of all those other quack physicians and pseudo-physicians out there practicing the healing arts without benefit of credentials from a U.S. recognized credentialing organization; e.g., a U.S. state.

  • Sonia

    Yeah no kidding, what is too hard about “docent”? I think it is the perfect word for it’s meaning, and it sounds friendly and approachable. It’s an even better word than “dumbing-down”.

  • Andy Knoedler

    Always the pedant, I’m afraid:

    1. “sophophbia” [sic] = fear of wisdom, not fear of learning

    2. One can be “in the throes” of doing something.

    3. “docent” = rather an ugly sounding term; like sommelier or maestro, it sounds highfalutin to American ears.

  • AmaT

    RE: replacing the word ‘docent.’

    I attribute it to the continuing ‘dumbing down’ of Americans and the English language.

  • Cecily

    As I Brit, I never heard the word “docent” till our third trip to the US (and we went to plenty of museums, parks and galleries each time).

    Our first encounter was at the court house in Sanata Barbara. At first I wondered if I’d misheard (it sounded oddly monastic or medical). Until I looked it up, I wasn’t sure if it was something specific to court matters or was primarily used in areas with a strong Spanish tradition.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say the word is off-putting, but it’s worth bearing in mind that non-Americans may be unfamiliar with it.

  • Cecily

    As I Brit, I never heard the word “docent” till our third trip to the US (and we went to plenty of museums, parks and galleries each time).

    Our first encounter was at the court house in Santa Barbara. At first I wondered if I’d misheard (it sounded oddly monastic or medical). Until I looked it up, I wasn’t sure if it was something specific to court matters or was primarily used in areas with a strong Spanish tradition.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say the word is off-putting, but it’s worth bearing in mind that non-Americans may be unfamiliar with it.

  • Lawrence S. Miller

    Right. “Throes” is correct. I recall being somewhat uncomfortable as I wrote “throws,” but obviously not uncomfortable enough. Thanks for the correction. Just stick around though, if you want to really be entertained, because some of my English grammar and usage errors are real humdingers compared that one.

    Highfalutin, huh? “Docent” sounds just fine to my ears. However, I suppose it is always possible that some of us are given to “falutin” lower than some others of us. Come to think of it though, “falutin,” however high or low, doesn’t sound all that good to my sensitive southern ears. But, then, that is just me.

    It is fun making fun of one another and, in turn, making fools of ourselves at the same time, ain’t it? Or… is it?

  • Maeve

    Andy Knoedler,
    Sorry about the sophophbia. I couldn’t get back in to edit it when I noticed the missing o.

    So, you’d prefer logiaphobia? Talk about ugly, but I’ll give you logiaphobia for “fear of learning” if you’ll give me “docent” for a knowledgeable museum guide.

    Re: “it sounds highfalutin to American ears”
    Doesn’t it depend upon whose ears? U.S. popular culture is unquestionably anti-intellectual, but many Americans are quite comfortable with the fruits of education, which include a commodious vocabulary.

  • John Peterson

    Which art museum? I can hardly wait to visit…

  • Lawrence S. Miller

    Maeve,

    Sadly, I believe you are correct in your assertion that “U.S. popular culture is unquestionably anti-intellectual.” As a testament to that fact, I wish to point out that it is far too often true that anyone who thinks twice about using the right word in a given context or who shows even mild concern for good English grammar and usage is looked upon as a “Grammar Nazi” or something similar.

    Thank you for standing up for good American English grammar and usage like you do here and on your own website found at http://americanenglishdoctor.com/

  • Terry A McNeil

    Boy, Churchill remarks about old and small words bears a charming insight when obscure points gather such attention.

    Call them “Comrade” …it works in other countries. Or “Greeter” that has a ring to it in other places.

    TIME…For our Best Deeds and Words

  • Sharon Roffey

    Further to the post by Maeve Maddox on April 22, 2011 1:06 pm (in response to ‘Nora):

    Medical practitioners in the UK discontinue the use of “Dr” in favour of “Mr” (or “Miss” or “Mrs”) when they are admitted to any of the Royal Surgical Colleges. This would explain why you saw so many of them in Harley Street. A “Mr” in this context is a higher status than “Dr”. Sounds odd, but there it is! 🙂

    I have lived in Switzerland and Australia and the same principle applies. I guess there may be other countries too.

  • Paul Russell

    @Sharon @Maeve … the use of the title “Mr.” for a surgeon is a throw-back to the days when a surgeon was in fact of a lower status than a doctor. He was an unskilled worker who carried a saw and knives, and made cuts and incisions as directed by the doctor.

  • Sharon Roffey

    In response to Paul Russell.

    Hi Paul,

    Maybe then but not now! Only the best surgeons are allowed the accolade of “Mr” … as is evidenced by all the surgeons with “Mr” in Harley Street.

    Also, ‘Nora (way up top) is completely on the wrong track when she says “As for doctors, in British usage even physicians are not doctors unless they have also PhDs.” This is incorrect.

    In the UK (and many commonwealth nations), a medical doctor holds a Bachelor of Medicine and/or a Bachelor or Surgery (equivalent to the MD in the US). A PhD is a higher academic degree based on philosophy or research. Of course, a medical doctor may also have a PhD, especially those who perform medical research, but most do not.

    >> I believe it is important to clarify these two points for those who are not familiar with distinctions in the European/Australasian medical systems. I think we should not pass off statements (such as the PhD one) as fact unless we are sure.

    OK, enough of the “Dr” vs. “Mr” debate – and in recognition that this thread started with the use of “docent” – I did a quick check amongst seven members of my family and friends (ranging from streetwise to university educated) and not one of them knew what “docent” means. We’re all Brits and Aussies so maybe it’s an American thing? Or maybe it’s simply “too fringe” to suit all walks of life? I assume that most exhibitions would want to attract all types and that a simpler word would be better?

    Well, it’s been an interesting debate.

    Sharon

  • Jiya

    can you tell be bout these phrases and their correct usage. please….

    speaking of which/speaking of witch..

  • Sharon Roffey

    In response to Jiya:

    “Speaking of which” is used to refer to something that has just been said. Other phrases than can be used in the same context are “by the way” or “incidentally”.

    For example:

    We went out to the Oasis restaurant last night. Speaking of which, I heard that it has recently been sold.

    We went out to the Oasis restaurant last night. Incidentally, I heard that it has recently been sold.

    We went out to the Oasis restaurant last night. By the way, I heard that it has recently been sold.

    “Speaking of witch” is not a correct phrase:

    “Witch” is a noun (amongst other things, “a woman thought to have evil magic powers , popularly depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat, and flying on a broomstick” (Oxford Dictionary) so there wouldn’t be a case for using “speaking of witch”. You’ll be OK if you never use that phrase; if you see it, then it’s most probably a typographical error.

    There was a very good Daily Writing Tips post “50 Problem Words and Phrases” a short while ago that you might find useful; it addresses the type of question you asked:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/50-problem-words-and-phrases/

    Quite a few more were added to the original 50 words and phrases.

    I hope that helps a little bit?

    Sharon

  • Cathy

    This is a wonderful conversation. I’ve worked as a museum educator for more than 25 years. I work at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, IN. I’ve had teachers call and ask for a “DOE-sahnt” — trying to give a different pronunciation. Here at my museum we’ve used “Guides” since the opening. The story is that the volunteers in the first guide training discussed what they should be called. The decision to be called “Guides” came after a fevered pitch by an older man. I paraphrase,”Did DOCENTS guide people West? NO! Sacagawea was a GUIDE. She wasn’t a Docent. We aren’t docents, we are guides!” And that’s how it went down in history about 21 years ago.

  • Sherwood Platt

    Gallery Guide? I believe most Docents can say, “The Gallery is down the hall”

  • ‘nora

    Err, Sharon, I think you misunderstand me. Let me clarify:

    My point was that physicians in the UK don’t use the title ‘doctor’ unless they also have PhDs. Many do, of course, but as you point out the medical degrees in the UK are Bachelors of Medicine or Surgery. While in terms of qualification to practise medicine these are absolutely equivalent to the American MD, they are not, strictly speaking, doctoral degrees.

    That’s why I remarked that ‘real doctor’ jokes seem to be an American thing. In the UK, one can be a qualified physician without a doctoral degree and no one finds that confusing. In the US, however, the title ‘doctor’ is pretty much limited to medical practitioners. People who have earned a higher academic degree based on research are not considered ‘real doctors’ in the US because they aren’t qualified to set bones or deliver babies.

    (I earned a PhD at a British university. I am not entirely unfamiliar with the system!)

  • Peter

    So, you’d prefer logiaphobia? Talk about ugly, but I’ll give you logiaphobia for “fear of learning” if you’ll give me “docent” for a knowledgeable museum guide.

    How ’bout deisimatheia 🙂

    My point was that physicians in the UK don’t use the title ‘doctor’ unless they also have PhDs. Many do, of course, but as you point out the medical degrees in the UK are Bachelors of Medicine or Surgery. While in terms of qualification to practise medicine these are absolutely equivalent to the American MD, they are not, strictly speaking, doctoral degrees.

    Yes, they are; the Royal College of Surgeons of England has this in its faq:

    Why are surgeons in the UK called Mr or Miss or Mrs, rather than Dr?

    In most other parts of the world all medical practitioners, physicians and surgeons alike, are referred to as ‘Dr’ whereas in the UK surgeons are usually referred to as Mr, Miss or Mrs. This is because, from the Middle Ages physicians had to embark on formal university training to gain possession of a degree in medicine before they could enter practice. The possession of this degree, a doctorate, entitled them to the title of ‘Doctor of Medicine’ or Doctor.

    The training of surgeons until the mid-19th century was different. They did not have to go to university to gain a degree; instead they usually served on apprenticeship to a surgeon. Afterwards they took an examination. In London, after 1745, this was conducted by the Surgeons’ Company and after 1800 by The Royal College of Surgeons. If successful they were awarded a diploma, not a degree, therefore they were unable to call themselves ‘Doctor’, and stayed instead with the title ‘Mr’.

    Outside London and the largest cities the surgeon served an apprenticeship like many other tradesmen, but did not necessarily take any examination. Today all medical practitioners, whether physicians or surgeons have to undertake training at medical school to obtain a qualifying degree. Thereafter a further period of postgraduate study and training through junior posts is required before full consultant surgeon status is achieved. Thus the tradition of a surgeon being referred to as ‘Mr/Miss/Mrs’ has continued, meaning that in effect a person starts as ‘Mr/Miss/Mrs’, becomes a ‘Dr’ and then goes back to being a ‘Mr’; ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ again!

  • Gabrielle Kelly

    It’s true. In the British and British-influenced systems, once you have been accepted into the College of Surgeons, you lose the Dr address. Point is, it’s honorary anyway (unless you have a PhD). Your General Practitioner has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, may have a post grad Masters degree in a speciality but is addressed as “Doctor” whether or not he/she has a PhD, purely as a matter of courtesy and respect. It’s comically British that an honorary and respectful title becomes insulting once your medical practitioner become officially a saw-bones:)

    As for Docent, the word arrives in US English from the Latin via Germany and is largely unknown in Britain and its Commonwealth. I understand that in Germany, however, it signifies an academic rank. If I were a museum guide who volunteered for the love of the subject – I would be offended by the implied patronage of being given an honorary academic rank.

    Significantly, for a UK English-speaker the word itself has serious problems because of its proximity to “dozy”, “decent” and “docile”. If I didn’t already have a doctorate, being called “Docent” would certainly encourage me to get one!

  • Michael

    Docent is an American/English word. Hence the reason most Europeans are not familiar with the word.

    There seems to be a trend in the US (strictly my opinion) to simplify words or terms. For example, the word Maitre’d has in some instances been replaced by either Host, or Head Waiter. The list can go on and on. Does this mean we’re “dumming-down” the English language? I don’t think so. Personally I think it’s just smart marketing. I’d probably giggle to myself if I were introduced to the maitre’d at “Applebee’s” but I’d be delighted to do so at “The Ritz”.

  • Sue Good

    As a British person, I had never heard of a docent, but the first thing I did was to look it up and it seems a useful word. Perhaps a bit apt to be confused with “decent” on a quick glance. Did you have a decent docent at your museum visit? No, perhaps not.

    Someone suggested “greeter”, but this might well cause problems in Scotland, where the Lowland Scots verb “to greet” means “to cry”. If you’re a greeter, you are usually pretty miserable, as Asda (Walmart) have found, to their cost, in Scotland.

  • Tim

    Re “docent”. I am a Brit of 39 years old and consider myself well educated (as did the University that awarded me the right to use “Dr” before my name). I have only today discovered the word “docent”. I came to this page after Googling it which I did after finding it on a Wikipedia page about Skansen in Stockholm.

    All I will add is that the term may be well established in the US, but in the UK, I imagine that only a tiny minority would know what it meant. That is of course not necessarily a good enough reason to dispense with the word.

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