comptroller

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.

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