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Why are accountant’s called bean counters?


We thought we would share this one with you.

The most obvious answer as to why accountants are sometimes referenced, disparagingly, as 'bean counters' relates to counting the beads (or beans) on an abacus. But that's not the case. There are a number of other suggested origins of the phrase - but no one seems to know for sure: It is likely that the expression wasn't coined in English but is a translation from German.

The German word 'Erbsenzähler' (Erbsen = beans and zähler = counter) was used in print by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen in Simplicissimus', this was back in 1668, it was used with the same 'pedantic accountant' meaning that we now use. An example is found in The Parliamentary Debates of the Australian House of Representatives, 1928: "It is not a bean counter's bill. There is no attempt to make any savings." This insinuation that 'bean counters' were penny-pinching accountants who couldn't see the bigger picture chimes in well with the no-nonsense approach of Australian politicians. The phrase flourished down under during the 1930/40s before becoming popular throughout the English-speaking world later in the 20th century.

The “Bean Counter” term was used in a 1975 Forbes magazine article that referred to "a smart, tightfisted and austere 'bean counter' accountant from rural Kentucky," The allusion is clearly to an accountant so dedicated to detail that he or she counts everything, down to the last small, but still important, bean. By the 1980s, however, most appearances of "bean counter" in the media were taking on a derogatory tone, and "bean counter" is now frequently used to mean a nitpicker who, lost in the numbers, fails to see the "big picture." An accountant might be asked to perform a thorough inventory of his or her company's assets, only a bean counter would literally count the number of beans contained in the company kitchen's cupboards. A financial bean counter may also scrutinize each department's budget to find any form of potential waste, no matter how insignificant or nominal it appears to be.

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