Reading a different question about the opposite of the word consultant made we wonder why the word shifted semantically from the asker to the person who answers?

From Etymonline:

consultant (n.) 1690s, "person who consults an oracle," from consult + -ant. In medicine, "physician called in by the attending physician to give consultation in a case," by 1872 (perhaps from French, where it was in use by 1867); general meaning "one qualified to give professional advice" is first attested 1893 in a Sherlock Holmes story. Related: Consultancy (1955).

The structure of the word suggests one who consults (others).

Consult means to ask or refer to. e.g. Consult the experts.

-ant (and its sister -ent) give the meaning of taking action or agency.

Attendants attend others. Commandants command others. Regents rule others. Dependents depend on others. Etc.

How did consultant shift from the person asking to the person asked?

  • Mirriam-Webster seems to be the only dictionary that offers "one who consults another" as the primary definition, although Oxford mentions it far down the page. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 15:57
  • I spent awhile researching this online and could find nothing useful. I'm sorry. Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 16:01
  • 2
    I think you're mistaken in supposing that the "original" meaning of to consult [with X] was to take advice [from X]. The full OED has as its first definition (first cite 1565) To take counsel together, deliberate, confer; also said of a person deliberating with himself. Which to my mind implies that right from the get-go there was always the possibility of counsel / advice going in either or both directions between the participants / "consultants". Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 16:43
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    As @FumbleFingers has pointed out, the meaning of the word has, from very early on, allowed it to be applied to both 'askers' and 'askees'. The reasons why we hear it applied to 'askees' far more often than to 'askers' are pragmatic: providing advice is something that one can do on a regular basis, as a profession, and there is thus a need for a convenient single word for those who practise such professions. One is an 'asker', on the other hand, only within the context of a particular transaction; it is not normally something that one practises as a profession.
    – jsw29
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 0:27
  • @jsw29: Excellent point! Obvious once you explicitly set it down, but I wasn't consciously aware before of that reason why consultant would tend to gain more traction for askees than for askers. Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 15:40

2 Answers 2


I think Etymonline description is quite clear. The fact that originally the term was applied to “person who consults an oracle“ may create confusion.

Those who “consulted an oracle” were privileged people who had access to oracles whose opinions were often requested by ordinary people who wanted to know the views and suggestions of oracles. In that sense the “consultant” was still someone people relied on to have their advice.

In modern times, oracles disappeared but consultants remained.

In medicine, "physician called in by the attending physician to give consultation in a case," by 1872

  • This makes the most sense. (As it was in line with my own supposition.) Ask the consultant to find out the answer for us from the oracle ...
    – David M
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 19:18
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    Kind of like asking people on Stack Exchange, because they know how to use google to find the answer. :)
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 18:19

The Sherlock Holmes story in question is Silver Blaze, one of the stories in the collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Here's some of the context for the use of the word "consultant":

Holmes shrugged his shoulders. "There are certainly grave difficulties in the way," said he. "[...] Might I ask for a photograph of Mr. John Straker?"

The Inspector took one from an envelope and handed it to him.

"My dear Gregory, you anticipate all my wants. If I might ask you to wait here for an instant, I have a question which I should like to put to the maid."

"I must say that I am rather disappointed in our London consultant," said Colonel Ross, bluntly, as my friend left the room.

Nobody came to Baker Street to get advice from Holmes; Holmes and Watson travelled to Devon to help in an investigation led by Insp. Gregory. It seems that Colonel Ross sees Holmes as someone who has come in order to ask questions. So his use of "consultant" is rather closer to the earlier sense quoted in the question: "physician called in by the attending physician to give consultation in a case", only transferred from medicine to another discipline.

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