The controller at my company recently said that she would only consider herself a comptroller if she did her job on behalf of a governmental or highly bureaucratic entity. the Online Etymology Dictionary lists comptroller as

c. 1500, variant of controller, with bad spelling due to influence of unrelated French compte "an account," from Latin computare.

According to AccountingTools.com (and the accepted Google answer):

The controller title is more frequently found in for-profit businesses, while the comptroller title is more commonly found in governmental and non-profit organizations

Where did this division in the role come from? Is this a common distinction?

  • 1
    Maybe the two words entered the English language at different times, like English chief and chef, both derived from Old French chief = leader?
    – njuffa
    Sep 12 '16 at 15:06
  • Interesting idea. I'd find this surprising, as they (now) have the exact same role. I wouldn't expect two separate and similar derivations for two very similar roles.
    – broguinn
    Sep 12 '16 at 15:09
  • 1
    This is completely folk etymology, but it might make sense that a word with a 15th century English origin borrowed from the French and applied to accounting might see its domain restricted to the public sector due to the English government's ties to the French at the time.
    – broguinn
    Sep 12 '16 at 15:15
  • See comptroller in etymoline
    – Jacinto
    Sep 12 '16 at 15:17
  • 1
    Consider the English "comptes rendu." ( formal report or accounting.) There is m or p pronounced in that word, so whether or not "controller" and "comptroller" are different words, or just different spellings, I am happy to pronounce them alike. But I admit English doesn't always work that way. Because the "ch" in "drachm" is silent, if I had my druthers I'd have the "ch" in drachma be silent too. Alas, I am outvoted, everybody else to one. These days "drachm" is usually spelled "dram," following a rule I would also like, Ditch all silent chs: yat, sism, thonian, fusia.
    – Airymouse
    Sep 12 '16 at 16:18

Both controller and comptroller are of French origin, from the 13th century, and refer to a person keeping a duplicate register as a check on a treasurer or keeper of accounts It would appear from references that controller slightly predates comptroller (at least that seems to be the case in English).

It would also seem that the verb control may be a back-formation from controller. The more usual senses of control, with a life in English from the late 15th century, do not appear in French (from English) until the late 19th century.

The OED notes that: in later use, the retention of comptroller over controller in specific official titles was probably partly due to a desire to dissociate the title semantically from control

a1400 Langland Piers Plowman (Corpus Cambr.) C. xii. l. 298
Counteroller [c1400 Huntington HM 137 Selde..falleþ þe seruant so deepe in arrirages As doþ þe reyue oþer þe conterroller þat rekene mot and a-counte; c1400 Trin. Cambr. countrollour, ?a1450 Laud counterrollers].

1433 Rolls of Parl.: Henry VI (Electronic ed.) Parl. July 1433 §18. m. 15, Or any other greet officier of household, as steward, chamberlein, tresorer or compterolleur.

a1475 Bk. Curtasye (Sloane 1986) l. 550 in Babees Bk. (2002) i. 317 Þer-fore þo countrollour..Wrytes vp þo somme as euery day.

1653 tr. L. van Aitzema Notable Revol. Netherlands 599 First and presiding Counsellor and Controller in the Chamber of Accounts.

1719 G. Jacob Lex Constitutionis xii. 309 There are three Controllers.., viz. of the Treasury Accompts, Victuallers Accompts, and Store-keepers Accompts. (OED)

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