Comptroller Compfusion: How Do You Pronounce It?

So which is it: "comptroller" or "controller?" As many of our listeners have pointed out, the correct pronunciation is controller. But that doesn't stop many New Yorkers — including the current comptroller — from saying it the other way.

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When former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer returned to politics this summer, he sparked a lively discussion about second chances in public life. He also provoked debate about another vexing question, the correct way to pronounce the title of the city's top financial official. Spitzer is running for the office of comptroller or, as some of our listeners insist, controller. So what is the right pronunciation?

As NPR's Joe Rose found out, the answer may depend on who you ask.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: On paper, the word begins with the letters C-O-M-P-T. And according to my unscientific survey, most New Yorkers pronounce all of them.

How do you pronounce it?

MIKE PARISI: Comptroller.

ROSE: Yeah, like it's spelled.

PARISI: Exactly, comptroller.

ROSE: So, tell me how you say it.

TOMMY MANN: Comptroller.

STEPHANIE COSLOW: I do think it's pronounced controller.

VERN OAKLEY: Well, I've heard it pronounced controller many times. But I thought it was comptroller.

ROSE: Mike Parisi from Long Island, Tommy Mann of the Bronx, Stephanie Coslow and Vern Oakley of New Jersey, all seem pretty confident in their pronunciations. But Frederick Allen of Brooklyn, he is not so sure.

FREDERICK ALLEN: There are times when I just say comtroller, without the P. Sometimes I do. There have been occasions when I didn't. I've heard myself pronounce it both ways, to tell you the truth.

ROSE: Allen's confusion is understandable, although it turns out that only one of these pronunciations has history on its side.

JESSE SHEIDLOWER: It's definitely controller. It has always been controller.

ROSE: Jesse Sheidlower is the president of the American Dialect Society. He says the word control and controller are basically derived from the 15th century French term for someone who audits government records or rolls. Sheidlower says the English spelling with C-O-M-P-T is rooted in a mistake.

SHEIDLOWER: It was just spelled in its archaic spelling based on a misunderstanding of the word's etymology. So the modern pronunciation of comptroller just based on how the word is spelled, has nothing to do with how it's ever been pronounced.

ROSE: But try telling that to the man who currently holds the office in New York, John Liu. Here he is speaking to WNYC's Brian Lehrer after the last elections.

JOHN LIU: I think there is a P in there also.

BRIAN LEHRER: There is a P in there.

LIU: C-O-M-P-troller.

LEHRER: M-P, and that's my first question. Will you use the M and the P? Or will you just say controller like everyone else seems to do?

LIU: I am going to use what's in the New York City Charter, which is comptroller.

ROSE: Eliot Spitzer also flirted with the "comptroller" pronunciation when he jumped into the race last month. But now he appears to be firmly in the "controller" camp. Have a listen.

ELIOT SPITZER: That is what I'll do with the controller's office. It is a question of leveraging...

ROSE: Pronouncing it "controller" is actually an area of agreement between Spitzer and his main rival for the job, Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer. Here's Stringer at a recent debate.

SCOTT STRINGER: The job of controller is to work with people, to audit city agencies, to find ways to move money...

ROSE: Comptroller is not the only word that's often mispronounced, according to lexicographer Jesse Scheidlower. In fact, he says, the T in "often" should be silent. But in general, Scheidlower says the more obscure a word is, the more likely it is to get mangled.

SHEIDLOWER: You know, this word is not a particularly common word. Most people aren't concerned with the actions of comptrollers. And one of the reasons why this particular race is so important is that it's not normal for very, very high-profile people to be running for this office.

ROSE: So regardless of who winds up being New York's next comptroller, Eliot Spitzer's entrance into the race may have already helped clear up some of the compfusion.

Joe Rose, NPR News, New York.

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