Everything under comptrol

The Zippy from the 17th, with some droll play on the occupational title comptroller:

(#1) The last panel brings us the N comptrol, back-formed from comptroller

A messy word history, starting with the verb control. From NOAD:

verb control ‘direct, regulate’ etc. ORIGIN late Middle English (as a verb in the sense ‘check or verify accounts’, especially by referring to a duplicate register): from Anglo-Norman French contreroller ‘keep a copy of a roll of accounts’, from medieval Latin contrarotulare, from contrarotulus ‘copy of a roll’, from contra- ‘against’ + rotulus ‘a roll’. The noun is perhaps via French contrôle.

From which we get an agent N controller, with one transparent sense in NOAD and one very specialized sense, referring to the head financial officer of an organization; the first is in fact a generalization of the second, which refers to someone who keeps a copy of accounts:

noun controller: [a] a person or thing that directs or regulates something: the power controller on a subway train. [b] a person in charge of an organization’s finances. ORIGIN Middle English (denoting a person who kept a duplicate register of accounts): from Anglo-Norman contrerollour, from contreroller ‘keep a copy of a roll of accounts’ (see control).

And then some messy lexical mixing, again as reported by NOAD:

noun comptroller: a controller (used in the title of some financial officers). ORIGIN late 15th century: variant of controller, by erroneous association with French compte ‘calculation’ or its source, late Latin computus.

So comptroller is an erroneously Frenchified controller. Apparently some people pronounce them the same, while others use a spelling pronunciation, with /mp/ rather than /n/. Chacun à.

The general practice is for governments (as opposed to businesses) to use the variant comptroller, but California has a Controller (and I’ve just voted for a candidate in the primary election):

(#2) The Controller’s seal incorporates the Great Seal of the state (which unaccountably lacks seals but supplies a grizzly bear — plus the goddess Minerva/Athena as the entity in charge, or, um, in comptrol)

(Comptrolling/controlling is mostly a guy thing, but here in the Golden State we have Betty Yee. I remark on this because I wearied of looking at Google page after Google page with photos of comptrolling men.)

Wikipedia struggles to explain the duties of comptrollers (and controllers) in various settings, but it’s pretty much a jumble out there. One sample passage:

A comptroller is a management level position responsible for supervising the quality of accounting and financial reporting of an organization. A financial comptroller is a senior-level executive who acts as the head of accounting, and oversees the preparation of financial reports, such as balance sheets and income statements.

It goes on and eye-gazingly on in this vein. Every organization gets to choose one title or the other — but once it’s chosen, they seem to feel bound to stick with it — and to assign specific duties and levels of responsibility as they will.

Here I draw the veil on institutional finance, in favor of a rock band from Edinburgh and their self-titled digital album (released in 2010):


No doubt computers and control figured somewhere in the band’s choice of name.

Fenwickian bonus. The name Fenwick in the last panel is a Zippy thing, Fenwick being a general-purpose funny name for a subsidiary character in the strip. On this blog:

on 2/14/13, “Fenwick”

on 5/14/18, “Fenwick the semi-generic”


One Response to “Everything under comptrol”

  1. John Baker Says:

    In private companies, “comptroller “ simply means the chief accounting officer. Governments, however, have comptrollers whose duties are set by statute and may not be what you would expect. The best-known comptroller is the federal Comptroller of the Currency, who runs the (wait for it) Office of the Comptroller of the Cuurency, part of the Department of the Treasury. The office has nothing to do with currency and is not primarily an accounting office. Instead, the OCC regulates national banks. The name was given in the 19th century, when banks issued currency. Today only Federal Reserve Banks can issue currency, and they are not regulated by the OCC.

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