The Grammarphobia Blog

Comp time

Q: I’m an accountant in the office of the NYC Comptroller. When I look up the word “comptroller” in my dictionary, it simply says, “Variant of controller.” Isn’t “comptroller” a word?

A: Yes, “comptroller” is a word, but most dictionaries list it as a variant of “controller,” an officer who audits accounts and oversees the finances of a corporation or government agency.

In fact, the word “comptroller” began life as an illegitimate spelling back in the 15th century. Like many misspellings, it entered English through the back door, with a little help from meddlesome scribes.

We discuss this in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

The first English version of the word, borrowed in the 1200s from a French dialect, was “countreroullour,” someone who kept a counter-roll— a duplicate set of financial records against which the original figures were checked.

Over the next few centuries, we say in Origins, the word appeared in various forms, such as “conterroller,” “ counteroller,” “countrollour, “controwler,” and finally “controller.”

All those spellings had one thing in common: The first part of the word had something to do with a counter, or duplicate, set of records.

The beginning was derived from the Latin contra, meaning opposite or against, as in a copy that you check an original against.

In those days, however, scribes loved to tinker with English spellings at every opportunity, and the tinkerers often screwed up.

In this case, some misinformed scribblers thought the first part of the word had to do with counting rather than countering. So they decided to emphasize the numerical angle by beginning the word with “compt,” like the verb “count” in French (compter) or Latin (computare).

In 1486 a new spelling appeared: “comptroller.”

Some scholars believe the scribes were trying to Frenchify the word to make their bosses— the official auditors of the day— seem classier. Others think the intent was to make English more like Latin.

Either way, the scriveners were mistaken.

To this day, the word “comptroller” reeks of officialdom. Think Comptroller General, Comptroller of the Currency, Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. And, of course, Comptroller of the City of New York.

Although you can find “controllers” and “comptrollers” in both government and business, the more bureaucratic-sounding word seems at home in the public sphere.

Both words are legit. But if we had a choice, we’d go for “controller” (pronounced con-TRO-ler). Simpler is better.

If you work for a comptroller, though, you don’t have a choice. Or, rather, the only choice you have is how to pronounce your boss’s job.

COMP-tro-ler or comp-TRO-ler?

Either one is OK.

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