Daily Archives: October 23, 2009


Here’s one for the “it looks funny so it must be right” types. This is a word for someone who checks (audits, oversees) an organization’s accounts. Clearly controller couldn’t be a proper term for that; after all, control is an ordinary term, and is just used for mechanical devices and psychological dominators. Comptroller means someone who counts – well, count is from the Latin root compt, and, really, don’t we want our words to display the glorious Latin etymological heritage rather than this debased Anglic corruption?

That was the idea, anyway, when, circa 1500, comptroller was introduced as a respelling of controller. It was a mistaken idea, not just because all words change and it’s silly to partially change the spelling of a word to manifest some point of its etymology (like that inserted b in debt), but because count – and compt – has no relation to this word.

The word controller comes from counter-roller, and counter is from Latin contra, “against”; the original reference was to someone who kept a counter-roll – a copy of a roll or document – for checking. In fact, all our modern English usages of control trace back to this administrative and auditing function. From double-check to keep in check is not such a far step, and the exercise of influence may extend to all kinds of guidance. But comptroller stays closer to origins, as evidenced by words most commonly found near it: office, state (in the US, of course), and currency.

The form of comptroller is suggestive of nobility (comte, i.e., count) to go with the royalties, and also perhaps of tidiness (kempt), but where there is coin to be counted you find, as so often, a troll hoping for a comp (better to keep your coins in a roller). The two o‘s could be eyes or rolls, the two l‘s the rolls unrolled for cross-checking. But that central consonant cluster, mptr, pounds itself right in the middle, like a muddle of arbitrary bureaucracy (I am put in mind of French dompter, which means “to tame” and is cognate with English daunt). And why not? Its presence is, after all, arbitrary and misguided – at least the mp part (oh, those MPs!).

Oxford lists just one pronunciation for comptroller, identical to that of controller. The American Heritage Dictionary, however, tells us that a spelling pronunciation – with [mp] instead of [n] – may be the more common pronunciation now. And why not? This word isn’t controller, after all, you know! It’s different! And it’s spelled differently! And so, even though comptroller and controller are the same word – dictionaries insistently list comptroller as a variant of controller – they’re different just because they are. It manifests the association between markèdness (funny-looking-ness) and formality and correctness: in English, we have this frequent assumption that something that seems odd but is used with an air of authority must be not only correct but more correct and, of course, more formal. I cannot but lament that this fact is quite beyond my control. But at least I can double-check the results.


Remember what the dormouse said?

Wait… what dormouse, where? Oh, wasn’t it something about treacle?

Well, he’s dead now, isn’t he?

And is that spelled correctly, anyway?

Your response to the sight of this word will help place you in a cultural context. Do you think first of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, wherein a narcoleptic Dormouse with a treacle fixation is seen at the tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare? Do you think first of the Alice-inspired drug trip song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane? (Do you then think of the scene in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Thompson, in the tub with the song on his tape player, instructs his lawyer to hurl the player into the water at the climax of the song – but the lawyer instead hurls an orange? Or do you think of the philosophical polar opposite, the invented “true story” drug-scare book Go Ask Alice?)

Do you think “dead as a dormouse”? (The original expression is dead as a doornail, by the way; that phrase existed already in 1350.) Do you think it should be doormouse, a sort of rodent version of a doorman, perhaps a Disney character?

Do you think “What the heck is a dormouse, and why is it called that?”

To answer the last question, a dormouse is a somewhat cute rodent (in some pictures even adorable), larger than a mouse. Dormice have a reputation for somnolence, perhaps because of their lengthy hibernation, and perhaps because of their name, too. The dorm is thought to be from Latin dormire or French dormir, “sleep” (think dormitory, normally called dorm now). But it’s not certain that it is. Even if it’s not, it may have to do with sleep.

And, on the other hand, it may be the mouse that’s the misconjecture; the rodent may have been called dormous – inclined to sleep – and the mous mistaken, for obvious reasons, for mouse. So this word may well be an eggcorn – a misrendering of a word or phrase on the basis of a mistaken etymological conjecture that happens to “make sense.” And doormouse for dormouse is in its turn an eggcorn too: people change it because it seems sensible for it to be door plus mouse. Aside from that they have nothing to do with doors. But if you never actually see them in real life, how would you know?

This dorm, now. Does is seem a somnolent sound to you? Nasals often bring sleep to mind, and the /or/ is like a yawn – and has a sound of snore (until morning), too. But those of us who have lived in dorms probably don’t associate them with sleep. More likely with the period of our lives when we got the least sleep!

As to mouse, it’s one of those words that are so common they don’t so much have echoes as they are echoes in other words. But it has travelling companions. By rhyming, mouse tends to go with house. By collocation, with computer (and field and a number of other things, and especially – by a wide margin – Mickey).

I’m getting sleepy now. I hope this is enough for you to… feed your head. (Which is, according to Grace Slick, what the dormouse said. Remember?)