The terms colleague and coworker are often used interchangeably, and generally, that’s fine. There’s not a lot of risk if you get the two words confused. But if you’re like me, you may want to know exactly what they mean and how they differ, if at all. So, I asked a lexicographer.
What’s a coworker?
A coworker is someone you work with in the same company or organization. Your boss is a coworker; the customer service specialist on your team, the administrative assistant, and the human resources pros in your company are your coworkers.
My coworker and I are chipping in to get a thank-you gift for our boss, Mara.
What’s a colleague?
A colleague is someone you work with, but not necessarily on the same team or even in the same organization.
You could say your fellow product manager is a colleague, but a colleague can also be someone who works in the same industry you do or someone you’ve done business with.
For example, a colleague could be someone at another company with whom you worked on a partnership or collaboration. If you work in sales, you might refer to one of your customers as colleagues.
We don’t offer consulting services here at Williams Partners, but I have a colleague at Awad & Lee who can help you with that.
Where do we get the words coworker and colleague?
The InHerSight editorial team uses Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, and as you’ll see, M-W’s defines the two words very similarly and even lists them as synonyms.
Coworker: “one who works with another : a fellow worker”
Colleague: “an associate or coworker typically in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office and often of similar rank or state : a fellow worker or professional”
We asked Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, about the etymologies of the two words and how their usage comes to us in modern American English.
“While it’s true that semantically the words colleague and coworker are very similar,” he says, “evidence of their usage, while certainly often overlapping, shows slightly different contexts for each.
“First, colleague is the older word, dating back to the 1500s with use essentially identical to the way we see it today. Coworker was more rare, but starting in the late 1500s it was used in a very particular way, nearly always with reference to religious or ecclesiastical contexts.”
Sokolowski provides this example from 1601: “and then we begin to be Co-workers with the grace of God.” Early use of the word work is more closely related to “performance of moral or religious acts,” as in “the works of God,” rather than a synonym for labor. “The connection of worker to labor was weaker for English speakers 400 years ago than for us today,” Sokolowski explains.
Though colleague comes to us from French, and coworker from Old English, both words begin with the same Latin prefix, com-, meaning “with” or “together.” “This makes [coworker] etymologically parallel to colleague, which begins with the same Latin prefix com-, here spelled col- to combine with the Latin verb legare, meaning ‘to choose’ or ‘to send as deputy.’”
The two words grew closer in meaning and usage in the early to mid-19th century.
Which word is more common?
“After the Industrial Revolution, coworker has gained in usage. Today, colleague is used in more professional contexts, often referring to people who work in the same field but not for the same institution, whereas coworker tends to be used for people who share a workspace or duties.”
I used the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which shows how often a given word or phrase has occurred in a corpus of books (British English, English Fiction, and French) over a specific period of time, to get a sense of which word is more frequently used.
In this graph, showing data from 1800–2019, in which the blue line represents frequency of the word colleague and the red coworker, we see that not only is colleague the older of the two, it’s usage has been far more common since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the modern usage of coworker appears.
Read more: How to Write a Memo