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of counts, accounts, and control

Posted: Tue Mar 01, 2005 1:02 am
by alyosha
I have checked a few online sourches and found conflicting accounts for the odd spelling of "comptroller." I am new to wordwizard and so this topic may be old hat for experienced members of the forum, but try to humor me please. I have a muddy memory of a college professor claiming that it had to do with some "p" to "b" pronunciation switch (hence the relic "bursar" on campus for the controller of the "purse"), and the silent "b" (as in "dumb") dropping out over time - aw, heck, I am only confusing myself now. Online dictionaries point to the French compt (account) and compte (count, as in nobleman) for the variant spelling, which would only make sense if counts were originally taxmen for the King (perhaps the derivation of the Sesame Street character . . .). In short: help!

of counts, accounts, and control

Posted: Fri Mar 04, 2005 5:28 pm
by Ken Greenwald
Jaime, Interesting! Today, COMPTROLLER and CONTROLLER are synonyms and are defined as being an employee, often an officer, of a business firm who checks expenditures, finances, etc. But it turns out that the spelling ‘comptroller,’ rather than deriving from any bona fide linguistic subtlety, was simply the result of an out-and-out mistake!

This erroneous spelling, COMPTROLLER, was introduced circa 1500 and is said to have resulted from the mistaken analogy with earlier ‘compter’ (now counter) and ‘accompt’ (now ‘account’) which were artificial respellings modeled on Latin ‘computare,’ compute, calculate. Thus, the first part, ‘cont,’ of the original word is etymologically unrelated to the word ‘count’ (see below) and its variant ‘compt.’ However, the ‘count’ in ACCOUNT, earlier ‘acount,’ acunt’ borrowed from Old French and later (in imitation of Latin) ‘acompt,’ account (‘a,’ to + ‘cont,’ count) from Late Latin ‘computus,’ calculation, ultimately does derive from the above-mentioned Latin ‘computare’ and the concept of counting.

A CONTROLLER (1292) was originally one who kept a ‘counter-roll’ – derived from the French ‘contrerolle’ (‘contre,’ against + ‘rolle,’ roll) – meaning duplicate/copy/list/catalogue of a roll/register/documnet, a copy of accounts used to check a treasurer in charge of accounts. By the 15th century it had also come to be a title for a household officer whose duty was primarily to check expenditure, and so to manage in general, a steward; also an officer having similar duties in various public offices. By the 16th century the erroneous spelling was also being used and thereafter both have been applied interchangeably. For example:
<1890 “Her Majesty's Household ‘COMPTROLLER of Household’; ‘Clerk COMPTROLLER, Kitchen.’ Lord Chamberlain's Department ‘COMPTROLLER.’ Chapel Royal ‘COMPTROLLER Royal Closet.’ Household of Prince of Wales ‘COMPTROLLER and Treasurer.’ Household of Duchess of Albany ‘COMPTROLLER.’”—“Whitaker’s Almanac,” page 84>
However, in the very same document we have:
<1890 “‘CONTROLLER of the Navy’ ; ‘CONTROLLER of H. M. Stationery Office’; and so in the various departments of the Inland Revenue, Post Office, Telegraphs, etc.”—“Whitaker’s Almanac,” page 148>
Note: Although the historical pronunciation of comptroller would be the same as for controller, evidence suggests that the spelling pronunciations including the ‘p’ may now be used by a majority of speakers. In a recent survey, 43 percent of the [[American Heritage Dictionary]] Usage Panel indicated that they pronounce ‘comptroller’ like ‘controller,’ while 57 percent pronounce it with ‘mp,’ as it is spelled, with stress on either the first or second syllable. And half of those Panelists who pronounce comptroller like controller indicated that they also consider the spelling pronunciations acceptable.
<1441 “Sir Thomas Stanley, COUNTROLLER of oure householde.”—‘Original Letters’ of Henry VI by Ellis, II. 35, I page 107>

<1548 “Should we haue ministers of the church to be COMPTROLLERS of the myntes?”— ‘Sermon on the Ploughers’ by Latimer, page 27>

<1613 “For I was spoke to, with Sir Henry Guilford This night to be COMPTROLLERS.”—‘Henry VIII, I. iii.>.

<1679 CONTROLLER of all the Excise in England and Wales.”—‘The Natural History of Staffordshire’ (1686) by Plot, page 277>
The verb CONTROL followed a similar (in fact, the same) line of development as ‘controller.’ And it is interesting to note that the closest English relative of ‘control’ and ‘controller’ today (as touched upon above) is the word ‘contra-rotating’ (1945), meaning rotating in opposite directions and applied to such things as propellers, brushes, etc. The Medieval method of checking accounts involved a duplicate register, or the ‘counter-roll’ (‘contrarotulus’ in medieval Latin, ‘contra,’ opposite,’ + ‘rotulus,’ diminutive of ‘rota,’ wheel). From the medieval Latin noun a verb was formed, ‘contrarotulare,’ meaning ‘check accounts by such means,’ and hence ‘exert authority.’ This passed into English via Anglo-Norman ‘contreroller’ giving us both the name of the agent and the verb.

As far as the two COUNT(s) go (the 14th-century ‘enumerate’ and the 13th –century ‘nobleman’), they are two distinct English words unrelated in etymology. As mentioned above, the ‘count’ of counting, reckoning, and accounting came through the French from the Latin ‘computare,’ calculate. However, the nobleman ‘count’ comes via Old French ‘conte,’ from Latin ‘comes,’ which originally meant ‘member of the imperial court,’ ‘associate,’ ‘companion,’ ‘attendant.’ This was a compound noun, formed from the prefix ‘com-,’ with, + ‘ire,’ go, and so its underlying etymological meaning is ‘one who goes with another.’ In the Roman empire it was used for the governor of a province, and in Anglo-Norman it was used to translate English ‘earl.’ It has never been used as an English title, but the feminine form ‘countess’ was adopted for the wife of an earl in the early (hmm! someone who acts like an ‘earl’ – not!) 12th century (and ‘viscount’ was borrowed from Anglo-Norman ‘viscounte’ in the 14th century). The Latin derivative ‘comitatus’ was originally a collective noun denoting a ‘group of companions,’ but with the development of meaning in ‘comes’ it came to mean first ‘office of the governor’ and then later ‘area controlled by a governor.’ In England this area was the ‘shire’ and thus COUNTY (14th century), acquired via Anglo-Norman ‘counte,’ came to be a synonym for ‘shire.’ Another descendant of the Latin ‘comes’ is ‘concomitant’ (17th century) from the present participle of Latin ‘concomitari.’

As far as ‘bursar,’ which today is a treasurer or business officer, especially of a college or university, and ‘purse’ go, ‘bursar’ does ultimately derive from Medieval Latin ‘bursa,’ purse, and it does look like they are related through a b-to-p change, but I don’t know enough Latin to be able to say if this is a common occurrence or not: Medieval Latin ‘bursarius,’ from ‘bursa,’ purse, + Latin ‘-arius.’ -ary, noun suffix.

(Oxford English Dictionary, Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins, American Heritage Dictionary)
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Ken G – February 3, 2005

of counts, accounts, and control

Posted: Fri Mar 04, 2005 7:08 pm
by kagriffy
Here in Illinois, the Comptroller is an elected official who is responsible for paying all the State's bills. In the 21 years I've worked for the great State of Illinois, I have NEVER heard anyone pronounce the official's title "controller." Here, it is always pronounced "COMP-troller." I never knew there WAS another pronunciation until I checked my dictionary and discovered that it listed only "controller" as acceptable. I'm glad to find that other dictionaries at least include both pronunciations.

of counts, accounts, and control

Posted: Sat Mar 05, 2005 4:24 am
by alyosha
Mr. Ken, I am ever grateful and appreciative of your magnificently complete explanation. I am teaching a creative writing course to high-school age homeschoolers and the word is coming up in a Twain story ("The Facts of the Great Beef Contract" - a short and wonderful humorous ac-count) and I will print out and share your ac-count-ing of the history of the word with them in order (hopefully) to spark an interest in word wizardry. Beyond that, it is now memorialized for time immemorial on the Internet, where many a google-searcher, I am sure, will pull it up in the future. Again, my thanks for your excellent detective work. I, by the way, am one who pronounces it "con-trol'-ler" but without pretense or exclusion.