Have you ever wondered what the difference between a controller and a comptroller is, and why we pronounce them the same? Here are the most frequently asked questions about controller versus comptroller for your edification:
Why do we have two words instead of one?
In 1896, The New York Times published an article which postulated an etymology for the word controller. It argued the word, "Came into the English language from the Old French from the medieval Latin contrarotulator, the keeper of a duplicate roll," and, "is not derived from the Latin word computare, or the French compter," declaring in a fit of pique, "it has nothing to do with 'counting.'"
Despite attempts to have the apparently debased, perverted and incorrect version of the word, comptroller, stricken from the laws, public records and documents of the United States urged by the article, the word comptroller persists to this day, largely because although similar, the meanings of the two words have subtly diverged.
What is the difference between a controller and a comptroller?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a comptroller as, "a royal-household official who examines and supervises expenditures," or, "a public official who audits government accounts and sometimes certifies expenditures." Currently accepted etymology suggests that it stems from the Middle English countreroller, and that it was influenced by the French word compter, for calculation.
Controller, on the other hand it defines as, "The chief accounting officer of a business enterprise or an institution (as a college)," or, "one that controls or has power or authority to control." It's origins relate closely to those of the word comptroller, evolving alongside it with the Middle English countreroller, and Anglo-French influence from contreroulur, and contreroule.
In practical terms today, a comptroller is most often a high-ranking government official in charge of accounts and expenditures, although private businesses may adopt the title. A controller, on the other hand, is more likely to work in a business or institution not under the direct control of the authorities, and may be in control of something other than money or accounts, as in the case of the air traffic controller. To confuse the issue though, a comptroller may also be an external auditor of a government owned company, or may have ceremonial role, as in the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's Office in the UK. Or he may be concerned with accountability as much as actual accounting, as in the Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office and the variously appointed state and city officials with the Comptroller title in the United States.
Why do we pronounce controller and comptroller the same?
We pronounce the two words the same (controller) because they evolved from the same origins around the same time and have only latterly taken on different nuances. Also, the French compte is actually pronounced with an n rather than an m sound, so whether the author of The New York Times article was correct and comptroller is nothing more than a misspelling of comptroller, or a slight derivation with Old French or Anglo French influences, the traditional pronunciation remains the same as controller.