Thursday, 01 August 2013 00:00
Former Governor Elliot Spitzer did something bad. He keeps doing it. I’ve seen him do it with my own eyes, in public and on television. It has to stop.
He is mispronouncing the office for which he is running. People of Long Island, we have a proposed merger of Suffolk County’s Comptroller and Treasurer positions, a competitive race for Nassau County Comptroller and the whole Spitzer media circus. That word, Comptroller, is going to be coming up a lot, and if we don’t get together on this, it’s going to be a long, long summer and fall: Kahn-Troh-Ler.
17th-century English intellectuals were trying to tie their language to the Latin and Greek they adored by adopting classical spellings. They mistakenly inserted a silent “p” into the word “control,” which actually comes from French. They also misinterpreted the roots of “iland,” so now we have that silent “s” in there. Don’t get me started on the “d” in Wednesday.
We eventually took some of those silent letters out of English words, but many stayed. I concede that most of these spellings are here to stay. In 1989, New York Times columnist William Safire urged his own newspaper to recognize the reality of the situation after 90 years of complaining and go with Comptroller in its headlines and copy. The Times did. I notice that the Buffalo News now uses City Comptroller instead of City Controller as they doing in 2007, when I last wrote about this subject.
New York is one of only five states that elects a statewide “Comptroller.” California, Idaho, Maryland and North Carolina elect a State Controller (37 states elect a State Auditor or State Treasurer or both). In the private sector, “Controller” is used almost universally. New York’s spelling is an oddity, and when it was inserted into our 19th-century State Constitutions, there were complaints from people who worried, correctly, that it would ooze down into local municipal charters, spreading spelling chaos for generations.
Consider this, from a special editorial published by the New York Tribune in 1842:
“Yet how surprisingly has this language been corrupted! Without positive evidence before our eyes, who could believe that the American Congress, or an American Legislature, should make such a blunder as to write Comptroller, when they mean Controller, and continue the use of such nonsensical words year after year, and age after age?”
This editorial writer condemned hack dictionary authors who copied and spread the errors of sloppy, unscientific European etymologists. That writer was Noah Webster.
At the turn of the 20th century, there was a serious national movement, partly funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, to simplify the spelling of hundreds of English words. President Theodore Roosevelt bought into this. In August 1906, he sent the federal printing bureau a list of 300 words that should be spelled without all the silent letters. It helped to spur acceptance of “program” instead of “programme” and “labor” instead of “labour.” It also touched off a conflict between Roosevelt and the Comptroller of the Currency, who insisted that he had to use the spelling that was in the statute.
I accept that Noah and I lose and Comptroller may remain an accepted spelling. However, it has never, ever, been acceptable to pronounce the word as “komp-troller” or “kump-troller.” Even Safire never gave in on that.
Mr. Spitzer isn’t alone. At times he has pronounced the title correctly, and I suspect that he and other candidates for Comptrollerships are aping the misinformed interviewers and moderators who introduce them. They don’t want to come across as strident, but maybe if they took a few seconds to politely make the correction, they just might come across as correct.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org