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The word "control"

I work as a translator from Norwegian to English. One word that is sometimes difficult to translate is the Norwegian noun "kontroll", because one frequent use of it is to describe an action whereby you check that something is the way it is supposed to be, like a ticket inspection, a document check, a speed trap or the spelling in a text. All these actions may in Norwegian be called a "kontroll", and the impulse towards translating it to "control" in English is almost irresistible.

In German, by the way, the noun "eine Kontrolle" may be used the way I have described above.

But this use of "control" is not included in English dictionaries. Still you do have e.g. the word "Passport Control" used on signs at airports and ferry terminals, etc. Isn't that the same use as the one I have described in Norwegian? It seems the dominant use of "control" in English is about "keep control of something", meaning to dominate, influence, decide over, etc." Is that what it is in "passport control" as well? I don't see that. To me it seems like a term for a document check, like "passkontroll" in Norwegian.

Any comments would be most appreciated.


  • In the OED, the use of control to mean 'checking against a trusted record' is listed as the earliest sense, but also as obsolete. From the eighteenth century it was usually spelled comptrol.

    When it was in use, it generally applied to 'payments, receipts, or accounts generally' rather than simple objects like a ticket, or measurements such as vehicle speed.

    My guess is that the heading Passport Control was adopted as a sign similar to those in other countries — possibly a conscious copy of French. If you ask us what the officers do there, we'll tell you that they check passports. If they 'control' anything in the usual English sense of the word, they control us. Movement across the frontier is controlled by means of passports.

    There's another term where just possibly the non-English sense of control has been adopted. I've always regarded quality control as an exercise to maintain quality, but it's possible that engineers originally mean it as an exercise to check the quality.

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