Tales told and accounts squared as year ends

A search in the newsroom the other day for a shorter synonym for "accountability," for the sake of a better-fitting headline, reminded me what a rich vocabulary we have for accounting, tallying, keeping score.

We count our blessings at Thanksgiving, and recount our adventures of the year in our annual holiday letters, or at year-end family and professional gatherings. And as the bills for all our indulgences come due in the new year, we may struggle to settle our accounts - or at least pay the minimum due.

It's also striking how "account" in the sense of telling a story coexists with the word's financial or quasi-financial meaning. "He couldn't account for the money he was advanced." "She was called to account for her actions." "His account of the evening's events didn't square with theirs."

This coexistence is found on the Latin side of the English language - "account" in all its meanings is traced back to the Latin "computare." (Ancient Romans made their computers out of marble).

It's also found on "the other side of the family" - the Anglo-Saxon side of English, where words like "tell" and "tale" have roots in concepts of both reckoning and narrating.

Scholars tell us that the first writing was probably by the Sumerians and consisted of agricultural accounts.

Bank tellers count out coins, and a storyteller's currency is words, but both activities share a root. Banks have tellers and counters, and the words should mean the same thing. But the language has evolved so that the former are people, and the latter are pieces of furniture.

Counters are also markers or tokens, as in the original "exchequer" in England. As the website of Her Majesty's Treasury explains it:

"... the name 'exchequer' derives from the chequered table (based on the abacus) which was used from about 1110 for calculating expenditures and receipts. Exchequers were normally held twice a year when the Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor, the Treasurer and others sat round the chequerboard, auditing the accounts of each local Sheriff who collected and spent money on behalf of the Crown.

"The exchequer is an oblong board measuring about 10 feet by 5 ... with a rim around it about four finger breadths in height, to prevent anything set on it from falling off. Over it is spread a cloth, bought in Easter term, with a special pattern, black, ruled with lines a foot, or a full span, apart. In the spaces between them are placed the counters, in their ranks."

It all sounds rather more picturesque than the idea of money flitting around electronically, doesn't it? This may be the source of the expression "to square accounts," which goes back to 1260. In any case, it's the reason I wince when the grand term "chancellor of the exchequer" gets rendered into a generic "finance minister" in a news story.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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