Counting and Accounting

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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This post lists and describes words deriving from the Latin verb computare, meaning “sum up,” that, unlike computer and the like, do not closely follow the original spelling.

Count derives its diversion from the spelling of computare from its journey to English through Old French, which spelled the verb conter. To count is to add up (“Count the money”), consider (“Count yourself lucky you didn’t get hurt”), or record (“Count me in”). It also means “depend on,” “deserve to be considered,” or “have significance.”

A count is a sum, while someone who adds numbers, or a coinlike object used to keep track of numbers, is a counter. (“Bean counter,” from the notion of using beans for this purpose, is a slightly derogatory term for someone who monitors finances.) That word also described a table at which a moneylender did business and, by extension, came to refer to any similar raised structure in a place of business and, later, in any building, including a house. (Countertop refers to the surface of the counter itself.)

Counting is the act of adding up numbers or of marking a sequence of numerals from smaller to larger; however, as a verb, the word pertains to relying on someone or something, as in “I was counting on you to be there.” The largely obsolete term countinghouse refers to a place used for doing and keeping track of business. “Counting frame” and “counting rail” are synonyms for abacus, describing a device using beads strung on wires as an analog calculator. A counting glass, meanwhile, is a magnifying glass used to count threads per inch in fabrics.

Count also, in a legal sense, came to pertain to the charges in an indictment for crimes, and in athletics, it describes the ten-second period a fallen boxer is given to resume standing (hence the expression “down for the count”) and the number of strikes and balls a baseball batter is allowed. (A full count is when the batter has used up the allotted two strikes and three balls, after which the player must hit the ball, or walks to first base on the fourth ball thrown, or is struck out.)

The terms of nobility count and countess (and viscount and viscountess) are not related; they derive from the Latin term comitem, meaning “companion.” Nor is country, which stems from the Latin adjective contra, meaning “against.” This is also the source of the prefix counter-, seen in words such as counteract, counterfeit, and counterpart. Similarly, countenance is not related; it comes from the Latin verb continere, meaning “hold together.”

Something that can be counted is countable, and the antonym is uncountable. These terms, in reference to words, describe plural nouns that, respectively, do or do not refer to groups of things that can be added up. (For example, cars is a countable noun; but traffic is not.) Countless means “too numerous to be counted”; unlike its synonym infinite, it has no direct antonym. A countdown is a calling out of numbers, usually from ten to zero or from three to “go,” to mark the time before something occurs, such as a spacecraft launch or the beginning of a race.

A discount is a reduction in price, and to discount is to reduce in price, though the verb also refers to diminishing the significance of a statement. A miscount is an erroneous calculation, and a recount is a calculation that is repeated to confirm that the original calculation is correct; recount also means “describe an occurrence.”

To account is to add up, and an account is an adding up or a description of an incident. Formally, the word describes a record or a statement, or an arrangement with an advertising, banking, or credit business (or an organization that provides internet or email access) or the client or customer with whom a company has such an arrangement.

Account also refers to value or esteem, as in “That’s not of any account to me” (also seen in the informal term “no-account,” referring to a worthless person), to advantage, as in “She used her skills to good account,” and to consideration, as in “I’ll have to take that into account”; it also applies to keeping track of something. The verb account means “analyze” or “consider” or refers to justifying, being a significant factor, or causing something.

Accounting is the practice or profession of monitoring finances, and one who does so as a career is an accountant; accountability has the more general definition of “the quality of being able to answer for one’s responsibilities”; the adjective is accountable. The antonym of that word, unaccountable, has two senses—not only “unresponsible” but also “inexplicable” or “strange.”

A perhaps unexpected member of the computare family is raconteur, adopted from the same French word and meaning “teller of anecdotes.”

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3 Responses to “Counting and Accounting”

  • TheBluebird11

    Sticking my two cents in, better late than never. I would just point out, mostly for the benefit of any ESL speakers, that recount as a noun, meaning another count, is accented on the first syllable, whereas to recount a story is accented on the second syllable.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Watch out! In mathematics there are “countable infinities” and “uncountable infinities”.
    The basic kind of countable infinities is the set N = {1, 2, 3, 4, …}. Then any set of numbers that can be set into a one-to-one correspondence with the set N is a countable infinity, too.
    Any other kind of an infinite set (that cannot be set into such a one-to-one correspondence) is an uncountable infinity. Four examples of there are a) R = the set of real numbers.
    b) The set of transcendental numbers.
    c) The set of points on a plane.
    d) The set of complex numbers.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The mathematician who originated all of this reasoning about countable and uncountable infinities was the German Georg Cantor.
    Cantor ~ counter is a pure coincidence.
    For a decade or so, Dr. Cantor faced so much high-pressure opposition to his ideas that it drove him into several stays in the insane asylum (or “mental home”) in Germany. Fortunately for Dr. Cantor, he had people like department heads, deans, and a university president who supported him. Now, Cantor is recognized as one of the great geniuses, along the lines of Albert Einstein, Kurt Goedel, David Hilbert, and Henri Poincare.

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