(n.) a female doctor
Last week, the BBC announced that they had cast actress Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth incarnation of Doctor Who, and some people thought that casting a woman as a centuries-old time-traveling alien from the planet Gallifrey who travels the universe in a phone box stretched the realism of the story too far.
Here at HH, we thought Sylvester McCoy was still Doctor Who, so we’re probably not in a position to comment. All that we’re concerned with is that a doctrix is a female doctor:
Doctor comes from the Latin verb docere, meaning “to teach”. In fact, when the word was first adopted into English in the fourteenth century, it originally meant “teacher”, “instructor”, or “one who has attained the highest level of learning” and so is in a position to teach others—a meaning that still survives in academic doctorates.
Grammatically speaking, doctor is the agent noun of docere, meaning that it’s the term for someone who carries out the action of the verb. And in Latin, masculine agent nouns ended in –or, while feminine agent nouns ended in –trix. Hence doctrix.
Amongst the words we’ve borrowed from Latin, this distinction was once much more strictly observed in English than it is today: browse a dictionary, and you might spot old entries for words like protectrix, inventrix and ambassatrix. But today, outside of fairly formal and set-in-stone writing styles like legalese (where terms like inheritrix and executrix still have some application), only a dwindling handful of feminine Latin agent nouns remain in use. You might still see Amelia Earhart referred to as an aviatrix rather than an aviator—but the chances of seeing Kathryn Bigelow described as a directrix, or Carol Ann Duffy as a versificatrix?
Doctrix is one of those dwindling, old-fashioned words: first recorded in English in the early 1600s, it’s seldom encountered today (and would probably raise a few “seriously, you’re going to be that pedantic?” eyebrows if you were to drop it into everyday conversation). Drawing distinctions between the genders like this just isn’t as pressing a concern—nor as fashionable—as it once was, and terms like doctor, sculptor, benefactor and spectator are now largely considered genderless.