Consul – Council – Counsel: What’s the Difference?

Russian consulate in San Francisco

The latest round of tit-for-tat “undiplomacy” between the U.S. and Russia was in the news this past week. The State Department ordered the closure of three Russian diplomatic offices, including the Russian consulate-general in San Francisco. This reminded me of the time, back in the 1970s, when I was serving in the American consulate-general in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). I’ve written about that on several occasions in this blog, so anyone interested can check out the links in these two sentences.

Today, however, I’m not going to add any more Leningrad stories to the collection (although I have several more I’ll be recounting in future blog posts). Rather I’m going to briefly discuss the confusion I’ve often encountered, as an editor, between the words consul/consulate, council and counsel.

First, let’s look at consul and consulate. Both words begin with C-O-N. There’s no U in the first syllable, so it’s not “counsulate,” even though a surprising number of people say it – and a few write it – like that. The person in charge of all the personnel posted to a consulate is called a consul. His or her colleagues generally have the title “consul” or “vice consul.” (A consulate-general is a fancy term for an important consulate. It is headed by a consul-general.)

What is a consulate? It’s a diplomatic office whose primary functions are (1) issuing visas to residents of the country in which it’s located who wish to visit the country that the consulate represents and (2) assisting citizens of their own country who need help from their government while they’re overseas. Consulates are considered diplomatic properties and their personnel are generally accorded diplomatic immunity, which means they cannot be arrested or prosecuted for violating local laws. (A notorious example: diplomats who park illegally and refuse to pay the fine.) If a violation is sufficiently serious the host country government can, however, declare the accused diplomat persona non grata (unwelcome) and expel him from the country.

Here are some concrete examples of what consulates do. U.S. consulates overseas issue American visas to local residents who wish to travel to the United States on business or pleasure, or who wish to immigrate to the U.S.

U.S. consulates also provide a range of services to Americans traveling in that consulate’s “consular district.” The best-known example of such services is one you hope you’ll never need – a consular officer will visit you in jail if you’ve been arrested for violating a local law. (Unless you’re unlucky enough to be in an unfriendly country, which might delay or deny a visit by a consular officer.)

U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia

Another consular service you hope you’ll never need is the unhappy work consular officials do, in collaboration with local authorities, to arrange shipment of your body home if you die overseas. (I was, unfortunately, involved in a case like that. And no, despite some folks having occasionally felt I was brain dead, I was not the body that got shipped home!) The most common service that American consulates offer U.S. citizens is to issue a new passport in the event of loss or theft – or renew a passport that is about to expire. Consulates also register the birth of a baby born to an American citizen who is living or traveling abroad. This serves as an official record of the child’s claim to U.S. citizenship.

In addition to these strictly consular services, consulates generally also function as branches, outside the host country’s capital city, of the U.S. embassy. So, for example, when I was posted to the American consulate in Leningrad, I was “consul for press and cultural affairs,” and one of my major responsibilities was to go to bat for the American graduate students doing research in our consular district under the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Exchange Agreement. (They were often stymied by Soviet officialdom; I did my best to help.) I also assisted visiting American scholars and performers, including the New York Philharmonic, and helped arrange meetings with local counterparts – people-to-people diplomacy. Other colleagues did political and economic reporting. We all worked in close cooperation with our embassy in Moscow.

Council and counsel are totally unrelated to the word consul, even though some people mix them up. And they’re only distantly related to each other. Council, a noun, is an official body such as a city or county council that serves as the legislative branch of local governments around the United States. A council can also be an international body, such as the Security Council of the United Nations.

Counsel, on the other hand, can be either a noun or a verb. As a noun, it can mean advice (e.g., His therapist gave him very helpful counsel) or it can refer to a lawyer representing a person or corporation in a legal case. As a verb, counsel simply means to give advice.

To wrap this all up, here’s a rather contrived sentence that uses all three words. “After he got into a jam while traveling in Turkey, the young tourist spoke with the American consul in Istanbul, who counseled him on the best way to present his case to a local judicial council.”

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