Sunday, August 4, 2013

Who put the "p" in comptroller?

I was watching Stephen Colbert interview Eliot Spitzer, who is running for the position of Comptroller of NYC, a few nights ago.(The broadcast was earlier but I almost never see the comedy shows on the night they are aired.) Colbert asked what a comptroller actually is, and though he of course turned the talk to Spitzer's scandal, Spitzer managed to get in a few words about the importance of the Comptroller's job.  I've embedded the interview below so you can hear it in his own words. 

Basically, though, the Comptroller of New York City is its chief financial officer. He or she advises the Mayor and City Council, as well as the citizenry on the fiscal health of the city. In practice, this means a lot of auditing and oversight. According to a Hunter College professor emeritus in political science, Kenneth Sherrill  the Comptroller acts as a form of check and balance on the mayor and council. As Spitzer points out in the interview, another very important function of the Comptroller is to oversee the city's big pension funds, worth about one hundred and forty billion dollars. It's through the use of this powerful tool that the Comptroller has some role and responsibility in overseeing Wall Street's tendency toward shenanigans as well. Of course, someone should really be overseeing the comptroller, as its a position ripe for corruption.

But all that is not why I fastened on this word. I was really just interested in why comptroller has a p in it. Wikipedia seemed to have a sensible answer: that it is a blend of the French compte, or count, and the Middle English countreroller, someone who checked a copy of a scroll, thus creating a useful word for someone who specifically checks financial sources.

However, other sources are having none of this. They, including the Online Etymology Dictionary, attribute the 'mp' rather than 'n' to all kinds of vices: "bad spelling due to influence of unrelated compte" (which in French sounded almost identical), "folk etymology", always bad in the minds of etymologists, though charming in the mind of someone like me, and so on. Personally, I think it's rather ingenious and wouldn't be surprised if that bit of word play was deliberate.

But if you want to get all New York 1896 on me, here's what the New York Times had to say back then:

We propose an amendment to the Revised Statutes of the United States, of the State of New-York, and of every State in the Union where the need of it exists. It is to this effect, namely:
That the official title Controller, in all laws, public records and documents, be spelled Controller, that being historically and etymologically the true and right spelling; and that the false and offensive form "Comptroller", born of ignorance and darkness, be discarded. (The full article is here.)

Eliot, Eliot--are you sure you want to plunge again into these murky New York waters?

(By the way, the image at the top of the post is by Paulo Barcellos, Jr., which he terms "Bladerunner style". He very generously puts his stuff up on Creative Commons, but you can catch more of his work HERE.



  1. I heard only the "influence of the unrelated compte" explanation, which made sense.

    This reminds me that among the friends I just visited in Massachusetts is a lawyer who has in the past railed against the persistence of Latinism such as inter alia in the law when perfectly good English equivalents exist. But he took great umbrage when I criticized what I regard as the flippant, slangy, and incorrect usage of circuit for circuit court, as in "The Third Circuit overturned the law."

  2. I suppose using English would make a lot of sense. But personally, I wish I had learned Latin in high school, which would have made many things, including law, botany and Catholicism more transparent to me.

  3. Ah, the threefold mysteries of God, law and flowers.