Council - counsel

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These two words share a common etymology, but the use of the two spellings has diverged in Modern English. (If you are reading older texts, you will find total confusion.)

  • A council, as a noun, names an administrative body. In the UK, local government is usually carried out by councils, such as the town council, the county council and the parish council. Members of such bodies are known as councillors. Voluntary organisations are often headed by a council, or 'executive committee'. People who sit on such councils are not usually called councillors in the UK. Such bodies as the 'Privy Council' and the 'Great Council' were originally established to advise the sovereign; this should show you how the etymology of council and counsel are related.
  • Counsel is usually an abstract noun. It means 'advice'. The phrase to take counsel means 'to take advice', or "to consult, deliberate"(OED). In England and Wales, senior barristers (lawyers who appear in court; in Scotland known as advocates) are appointed Queen's [or King's] counsel. The phrase a counsel of perfection (properly spelled this way) means 'advice that cannot fully be lived up to'; something that the adviser knows is an ideal at which one should aim, but which one cannot attain.
    • In modern times, a counsellor has come to mean primarily 'one who is trained in counselling. Counselling is "the giving of advice on personal, social, psychological, etc., problems as an occupation" (OED). More especially, it is a form of psychological or social therapy in which a counsellor helps a client to find her or his own solution to her or his problems.
    • The verb meaning 'to advise' should always be spelled 'to counsel'.
In American English, the spelling rules for words with this sound are different. A counselor has only one '-l-' in American selling; it mean 'an adviser' (or advisor in that country), not necessarily of the type of the cognitive therapist denoted in the UK. In the US, a counselor may be a lawyer. The usual name for the sort of role played by a councillor is more usually a councilman or council woman in the USA: this is sometimes given as councilor - with only one '-l-'.
You might care to see a similar pair of words at adviser - advisor.