Joseph Epstein & Dr. Jill Biden: Nerdy Question about Honorifics Gets Personal

Jill Biden on Election Day in St Petersburg, Fla., November 3, 2020 (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Some authors append “Ph.D.” to their name in their tagline and sometimes even in their byline. Editors routinely delete it. Likewise with “Dr. Jones” in running text. It’s Ms. Jones, if the publication is old school. If not, Firstname Jones on first mention and just Jones after that. Granted, some publications are generous with the honorific “Dr.” and “Professor.” They’re not the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

Some people think that calling someone who has a doctorate “Doctor” is gauche. Others think that not to call the person “Doctor” is disrespectful. I’m with the former group. I always felt that “Dr. Kissinger,” for example, was somewhat cringey. How often have you read or heard “Dr. Daniel Patrick Moynihan”? Once, just now?

That, more or less, was Joseph Epstein’s argument in this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Or so I thought. To judge from the tsunami of reaction against it, most people disagree with his position.

Or do they not have a clear opinion on the matter, because they never gave it much thought, but are outraged rather by Epstein’s snark, which included denigration of Jill Biden’s field of study (education), her dissertation topic (narrow, as dissertation topics often are), and the institution (the University of Delaware) that granted her degree? Then his references to his honorary doctorate and to his lack of a non-honorary doctorate invited the impression that his unstated purpose was to relieve status anxiety.

Epstein and his editors might have felt that the snark added a little entertainment value to the essay and that the touch of self-referentiality added warmth. To my ears, the tone was cheeky, something you might hear at a celebrity roast, but it turns out to have been a misstep and a distraction. Readers took offense. No, they would say, the offense was given. In any case, they have spoken. They’ve also piled on.

The honorifics question, strictly considered, should interest editorial nerds. I’d be interested to hear them discuss it, though not today, not until the squall has passed.

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