Did you know that’s the original form of control? I didn’t (or more precisely, I probably did at some point and later forgot). OED:

perh. a. F. contrôle, earlier contrerolle ‘the copie of a roll (of account, etc.), a paralell of the same qualitie and content with th’ originall; also, a controlling or ouerseeing’ (Cotgr.), corresp. to med.L. contrarotulus, f. contra against, counter (cf. CONTRA- 3) + rotulus ROLL. But, as the n. appears only about 1600 in Eng., and app. not in the original literal sense, but only as a noun of action, it was probably then formed immediately from the verb. A few examples of COUNTER-ROLL (q.v.) directly represent the Fr.

Johnson (copied in later Dicts.) has as first sense, but without quotation, ‘A register or account kept by another officer, that each may be examined by the other’. This J. retained from Bailey’s folio, where it was founded on the statement in Kersey’s Phillips, 1706, ‘properly, a Book, or Register, in which a Roll is kept of other Registers’. But this is merely an etymological remark, applicable to med.L. contrarotulus, and OF. contrerolle; there is no evidence that control was ever so used in Eng.: see COUNTER-ROLL.

Neat, huh?

By the way, I’m off to Cape Cod for a brief but much-needed vacation; I’ll be back Saturday evening.

Update (April 2020). The OED revisited the word for the Third Edition in December 2015; they now say the noun is apparently from the verb, adding:

Compare Anglo-Norman contreroulle, countrerolle, Anglo-Norman and Middle French contreroule, Middle French contrerole, contrerolle, French contrôle duplicate copy of a roll or other document, kept for purposes of cross-checking (end of the 13th cent. in Anglo-Norman, 1367 in continental French, although earlier currency is probably implied by contreroouller control v. and contrerolleur controller n.), verification (1419 as contreule), direction, management, surveillance (1580), originally < contre against (see counter prep.) + role, roole, roulle, etc. roll n.1, in later use (in senses relating to verification, checking, or direction) < contrôler control v.

Compare also post-classical Latin contrarotulus counter-roll, record kept by one official as a check on another (frequently from 1220 in British sources) < classical Latin contrā against, counter (see contra- prefix) + rotulus roll n.1

Compare counter-roll n., a calque on the French word, and earlier controller n.
Johnson (copied in later dictionaries) gives as first sense, but without exemplification by a quotation, ‘A register or account kept by another officer, that each may be examined by the other’. Johnson retained this sense from Bailey’s folio, where it was founded on the gloss in the 1706 edition of Phillips’s New World of Words, ‘properly, a Book, or Register, in which a Roll is kept of other Registers’. However, this is merely an etymological comment on the Latin and French nouns; there is no evidence that control was ever used in this sense in English (compare counter-roll n.).

About the verb they say the following:

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman counterouller, Anglo-Norman and Middle French contreroller, Middle French controler (French contrôler) to check or verify (an account, originally by comparison with a duplicate register) (c1310 in Anglo-Norman), to oversee, regulate (payments, expenses) (late 14th cent. or earlier), to check, verify (a fact, statement, etc.) (1437), apparently < contrerole, contrerolle, contreroulle control n. (although this is first attested slightly later than the verb).

Compare post-classical Latin contrarotulare to check by means of a counter-roll (frequently from late 13th cent. in British sources), Old Occitan contrarolar.

Compare earlier controller n.
Senses 3 [To exercise power or authority over; to determine the behaviour or action of, to direct or command; to regulate or govern] and 4 [To restrain from action, hold in check; (in later use) esp. to curb the growth or spread of] are not paralleled in French until considerably later and do not appear to have become established in French until the late 19th cent. (although there is an isolated attestation in the 17th cent.); they may have been borrowed into French from English.


  1. What, no control freaks around here?
    It seems to me the “counter-roll” sense of the word survives in the term “controller,” meaning the chief accounting or auditing officer of a business or institution. “Controls” in accounting usage refer to doublechecks that tell you, basically, that the account books are right and employees are not stealing because two separate people using different methodology agree on a bottom line, for example in an inventory control. Here’s some verbiage from a bean-counter on accounting controls: It seems to me the “counter-roll” sense also comes up in the usage “control group” in a scientific experiment.

  2. I am now working on a system for $MAJOR_BANK that is classified as ‘controls’; it looks at transactions to see if anything bad has happened to them (for example, if one has been deleted, which shouldn’t happen). The monitoring system is called Sentinel, the browser for bad transactions is called Warden.

  3. The OED has updated the entry, so I have updated the post.

  4. Lars Mathiesen says

    Let me just punt in Swedish kolla v ~ ‘check’ which is much used colloquially and said to be short for kontrollera. But TIL that the large dictionary has it under kollationera = ‘cross check’. Same idea, but from Latin.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Unrelated to the comptroller, then, despite the very similar function.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Swedish kolla v ~ ‘check’

    Clearly inherited from Scandi-Congo: cf Kusaal kɔl “put something around (someone else’s) neck.”

  7. David Marjanović says

    Latin collum “neck” thickens the plot.

  8. would that mean that the new york state Comptroller* is actually not someone who checks the state’s financial records against reality (counter-roll-ing), but just someone who assembles those records (count-roll-ing), reality be damned? it would explain a lot about the office, and the state government!

    * whose title is subject to parody every time there’s an election, whether or not they’ve been doing a good job keeping everything under comptrol.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Latin collum “neck” thickens the plot

    I did wonder, when I first encountered Kusaal kɔl, whether it was by some circuitous route ultimately derived from the Latin collum, perhaps via “collar”, but (apart form the fact that there is no sign of “collar” itself having been borrowed) the word actually has intra-Kusaal cognates; the -l is a derivational causative suffix, and the corresponding verb for “put something on one’s own neck” is kɔr.

    This form is itself a bit problematic: Kusaal -r after a short root vowel historically always derives from simplification of a consonant cluster, borrowing, or analogy; I think what has happened is that the root is *kɔd-, and the final -r has arisen via a known change *dy -> r, with the dynamic verb owing its final stem consonant to an obsolete stative verb “have something around one’s neck.” There is an imperfective-only minor conjugation with the flexion *-ya; it has been steadlily eroding away in WOV, and quite a few of its former members have migrated to the main conjugation even in Kusaal, which preserves that conjugation best. (Kpar “lock” is another example; the Dagbani cognate kpari should actually correspond not to Kusaal kpar, but to an unattested *kpad; the Kusaal form must be a repurposing of a stative verb “be locked.”*)

    There is a Proto-WOV *kɔd- “throat”, but its tone seems to be wrong to be the same etymon. It presumably underlies Kusaal kɔdig “cut the throat of” and Mooré kodbre “larynx.”

    Wiktionary suggest that Latin collum might go back to the ever-popular “wheel” root …

    * This is likelier than it sounds: the characteristic Kusaal loss of final short vowels in most contexts means that you can’t usually tell whether a form is a stative from the ya-conjugation or a perfective form from the main conjugation used with a stative meaning: the difference would only be apparent in the negative form or in questions.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Oh, fascinating.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    The word niŋgɔnkɔrig “necklace” supports my theory: the first element of this compound is the stem of niŋgɔɔnr “neck” and the stem of the second component, kɔrig, is of course derived from this very same “put around one’s own neck” verb. Usually instrument-noun-based formations like this have a derivational -d added to the verb stem, e.g. sialɔɔdiŋ “belt”, from sia “waist” and “tie”, (“thing for tying round the waist”), but derivatives of ya-conjugation verbs with stems ending in l m n or r do not: the cluster formed from -Cy- in the finite form is just carried over “as is” into deverbal nouns and adjectives. So that works.

    There has been a lot of analogical remodelling in such forms; however, it seems, unsurprisingly, always to go in the direction of ya-conjugation verb derivatives being remodelled after main conjugation patterns, never the reverse.

  12. Kusaal kɔl “put something around (someone else’s) neck.”




    1. (Common Turkic) slave, servant

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