The Grammarphobia Blog

Colleagues now, and then

Q: I am curious about the current usage and meaning of the word “colleague.” My understanding is that it used to mean an associate of one in the same profession (e.g., an attorney is a colleague of another attorney). Now, it seems to be synonymous with “coworker.” Please advise me of the proper usage.

A: “Colleague” has become a more inclusive word than it used to be.

The source of the word is the Latin collega, “one chosen along with another.” John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology say the Latin word was formed from col (together) plus legare (to send or choose as a deputy).

Other English words derived from legare include “delegate,” “legation,” “legacy,” and “college” in the older sense, as in “the College of Cardinals.” (But not “league,” which comes from a different source: the Latin ligare, to bind.)

Strictly speaking, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “colleagues” are associates or partners with roughly the same standing in a governmental or ecclesiastical office. In this strict sense, the OED says, the word should not apply “to partners in trade or manufacture.”

The earliest uses cited in the OED come from ecclesiastical writings. An early citation, dated 1533, for example, refers to St. Paul and “Peter hys colleague.”

But in ordinary usage (that is, not ecclesiastical or governmental), and in ordinary dictionaries, “colleague” is now defined more loosely and indeed has its place in the business world.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as “a fellow member of a profession, staff, or academic faculty; an associate.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is not quite so all-embracing: “an associate in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office” (mere staff members don’t qualify).

R. W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d. ed., 1996), says: “The word has been sharply democratized in the 20th century. Representatives of trade unions speak of their colleagues … fellow-strikers, fellow-prison officers, associates of any kind, now qualify for the term colleagues. The word is on a downward spiral.”

I hear “colleagues” used not only for nonprofessionals but also to describe people who toil on different rungs of the corporate ladder. An editor, for example, might refer to her assistant as “my colleague.” In this sense, it does appear to be synonymous with “coworker.” But it may also be a subtle way for a superior to confer status on a valued subordinate.

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