No, it is not misspelled. It’s “Comptroller.”

A journey through the Office of the State Comptroller’s etymological history

  • Posted on - 03/15/2021
  • Author - David Bender, Legal Affairs and Audit Specialist
Why is it "Comptroller" and not "Controller"?

It is an antiquated title. Not many people know how to pronounce it, nor attempt to try. But the word has survived for hundreds of years, and is still used in various forms today. There are two definitions associated with the term “comptroller”:

  1. a royal-household official who examines and supervises expenditures
  2. a public official who audits government accounts and sometimes certifies expenditures.[1]

As you can see, although antiquated, the term generally applies to one who oversees or examines financial information.  The term “controller” as used in accounting, has the same meaning, as well as an additional one: the chief accounting officer of a business enterprise or an institution.[2]

Why is it “Comptroller” and not “Controller”?

Beginning in the 15th century, speakers of Middle English took the Middle French word contrerolleur, meaning register copier, and would use the conterroller, meaning someone who checks a copy of the register. That word became “controller.”  However, at the same time, some Middle English speakers altered the word incorrectly, confusing contre with the Middle French compte, meaning “account.”  Thus, compteroller, meaning someone who would check accounts, or the word “comptroller.”

There are two ways to pronounce “Comptroller.” The first is to simply ignore the spelling and refer to the title as “controller.” The second way to pronounce the title is to de-emphasize the “p” in the word, and state “com-troller.” This is a similar pronunciation to other words where “mpt” are joined together, such as “unkempt” and “preemption.”

The term “Comptroller,” has attracted criticism over the years. Grammarian Henry Fowler, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, condemned "comptroller" as "not merely archaic, but erroneous." However “erroneous,” the title continues to evade extinction.

The Comptroller in New Jersey Government

Along with New Jersey, some states still use the Comptroller designation. There are those that use the title for the chief accounting officer of the state, similar to New Jersey’s Director of Budget and Accounting. Those states include: California, Illinois, Maryland, and Texas

Other jurisdictions use the Comptroller designation for an official that audits and oversees government spending to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. Those other jurisdictions include: the federal government, Connecticut, New York state, and New York City.

In the early 20th century, the State of New Jersey had the position of Comptroller that acted as the chief accounting officer of the State, who would report to the Treasurer and certify expenditures. However, the use of Comptroller ended in 1948. As a result of updating the laws of New Jersey to reflect the recently adopted 1947 constitution, the title of Comptroller was changed to the Director of Treasury’s Office of Budget and Accounting. See N.J.S.A. 52:18A-7. 

The Modern New Jersey State Comptroller’s Office

In 2007, the Legislature created the current State Comptroller position as an independent office to oversee government spending and to weed out waste, fraud, and abuse. Think less of a budget director and treasurer, and more of an inspector general.

Some confusion occurred as a result of the creation of the State Comptroller’s Office in 2007. When the old Comptroller title became the Director of Budget and Accounting, the statutes that referred to the Comptroller did not change. It appears that it was generally understood that the Comptroller now referred to the Director.

However, when the new State Comptroller’s Office was created, the legislature had to clarify which Comptroller the various statutes refer to – the old one or the new one. Rather than attempt to amend all the statutes to change Comptroller to Director of Budget and Accounting, the legislature simply stated that “any reference to ‘State Comptroller’ or ‘Comptroller of the Treasury’ occurs … before the effective date [of the creation of the State Comptroller’s Office] the same shall be deemed to mean or refer to the Director of the Division of Budget and Accounting in the Department of the Treasury.” N.J.S.A. 52:15C-16.

So if you look at a statute than makes reference to the Comptroller, you would need to look at when the statute was enacted to know which Comptroller it is referring to.

Although the Comptroller has an old, possibly “erroneous” name, the Office of the State Comptroller does have a critical role in New Jersey to weed out fraud, waste, and abuse in government, and to ensure that government spends your tax dollars efficiently and effectively.


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