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Counsel, counsellor and council (and Handel)

I have a strange auditory tic. Every time I see or hear the word ‘counsellor’, the massed choir of Handel’s Messiah [if you are short of time, go directly to 2:45] floods my brain, specifically the chorus based on Isaiah 9:6: His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Counsellor is a problematic word, not so much in itself as in the fact that it looks very like another word which means something different. Let’s start with the definition of counsellor.

A counsellor (in the U.S., counselor) is someone who gives counsel, from the Old French counseil, “advice, counsel; deliberation, thought”, from Latin consilium, “plan, opinion”. A counsellor is thus someone who gives advice of some kind; it is a very commonly used title in the world of social work, for example, or mental health. When I was claiming unemployment benefit in the UK, I had to report to a ‘back-to-work counsellor’, which is fairly representative of the way the word is used today.

Counsellor is also used in UK diplomacy to designate a senior officer and in US diplomacy the person who ranks just below the Ambassador.  In the British Foreign Office there is also the post of consul, who is the equivalent of an ambassador in a country where there is a British Consulate but no embassy, such as India, or the UK’s diplomatic representative in a given area of a certain country.

And, crucially, within the US legal system, a counselor-at-law is a term for a lawyer, particularly one who conducts cases in court.

The word which looks and sounds a lot like counsellor is, of course, councillor. A councillor is simply a member of a council. It comes, via Twelfth Century Old French concile, “assembly; council meeting; body of counsellors”, from the Latin concilium “group of people, meeting,” from com– “together” + calare “to call”. Apparently, the they have been confused since the Sixteenth Century.

In short, the distinction between the two words is that councillor refers principally to the membership of a deliberative assembly (such as a city council or student council), whilst counsel and counsellor refer to advice and guidance in general and to a person (such as a lawyer or employment adviser) who provides it.

This is an important distinction, and one which is it important to get right, because, despite the similarity of appearance, the difference in meaning is significant. In an upcoming blogpost I will look at how ‘consultant’ fits into the picture…

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