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shameless pleading





Count / Counter

 Formica’s fine, thanks. I’m only visiting.

Dear Word Detective:  The other day, while listening to the radio on the way home from work, I heard an advertisement for a company called “Counter Intelligence.” They install countertops but have that nifty double entendre which is perfect for the DC area. It got me thinking about the word “counter,” which can mean: “something (or someone) that counts,” “a flat surface on which you can place a glass of beer,” or “opposite to” as in “counter-clockwise.” And also about the word “count,” which can mean “to say numbers in order or measure things in this way,” “a member of the nobility,” or however you would describe “count” in the phrase “make things count.” Are all or some of these senses of “count/counter” related somehow? — Fernando.

“Counter Intelligence” is cute. Do they “terminate” your ugly old kitchen “with extreme prejudice”? But cute business names make me queasy. We hired a roofing company with a cute name several years ago to do some repair work. They sent us three guys who spent their time drinking beer, screaming obscenities and threatening to kill each other on our front lawn. After they finally left, we discovered that the new part of our roof was done, for no apparent reason, with bright green shingles. It looked like the house had been struck by a giant avocado from space.

I actually answered a query about “counter” a few years ago, though it came from a slightly different, and weirder, direction. Two guys were having an argument over whether “countertop” was a legitimate word because every counter has a top, or it wouldn’t be a counter. Yeah, really. Far as I know, they’re still duking it out in the aisle at Lowes.

There are actually two distinct kinds of “counter” mentioned in your question, plus “count” in the Sesame Street “Count von Count” sense.

The “countertop” sort of “count” comes from the verb “to count,” which, in its most basic sense, means ” to assign to objects, actions, etc., the numerals one, two, three, etc. so as to ascertain their number; to determine the total of a group.” The root of “count” is the Latin verb “computare,” to calculate (“com,” together, plus “putare,” to think). “Count” doesn’t bear much resemblance to its Latin root (or to its relative “computer”) because it was filtered through Old French. To “make something count” and similar uses mean to include it in a metaphorical “total” or summation. “Counter” as a piece of furniture comes from the desk in banks, shops, etc., where money is taken in and counted. The noun and verb “account” and its relatives (e.g., “recount”) mean both “to arithmetically total” and “to tell a story” (e.g., “The victim’s account of the crime”).

The “counter” meaning “opposite” (as in “counter-clockwise”) and “in response to” (as in “counter-intelligence”) comes from the Latin “contra,” meaning “against.” It’s also a verb meaning “to oppose or respond in kind” as in “The boss countered the union’s demands with an offer of permanent vacations.”

Lastly, “count” as a title of nobility comes from the Anglo-Norman “counte,” in turn derived from the Latin “comitem,” literally “companion,” used as the term for a provincial governor or other official close to the Emperor in the Roman Empire. In European use since the 11th century, a “count” was roughly equivalent to an British “earl.”

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