What’s So Hard about “Docent”?
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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