The etymology of control

The dark side of metrics

According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, the definition of the word “control” is “to exercise restraining or directing influence over.”

It’s a word that comes up a lot. In life, you may want to control your behavior. In work, you may desire to try and take control of a situation. Efforts to control things, or people, can be destructive and self-defeating. In some contexts, attempts to control can be unethical or immoral. In other contexts, control is essential.

While reflecting on control, I started to wonder about its etymology, and was surprised by what I learned. According to Etymology Online:

early 15c., countrollen, “to check the accuracy of, verify; to regulate,” from Anglo-French contreroller “exert authority,” from Medieval Latin contrarotulus “a counter, register,” from Latin contra “against” (see contra) + rotulus, diminutive of rota “wheel” (see roll (n.)). The word apparently comes from a medieval method of checking accounts by a duplicate register.

The word control, it seems, derives from the idea of counting against a list. The very concept of control, then, is fundamentally about metrics, and vice versa.

Understanding the origin of “control” helps me think more clearly about metrics. In some contexts, metrics can be liberating. Metrics can enable creativity and growth. But, metrics can also be the basis for dominion, for making sure things or people are held to account, for the boxing in of the spirit.

When we think about the relationship between control and metrics, it’s helpful to remember that intent and context matter. But it’s also important to appreciate that the very act of measurement can be an exercise in subordination.

Perhaps through appreciation of this relationship, we can attempt to approach ourselves and others with more compassion. To reject those metrics that seek to demean the human spirit, and to better embrace situations when metrics can be empowering and promote respect.