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EcoTomics: Redefining the accountant

1st Feb 2019
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Tom Herbert digs out his accounting archaeologist kit and goes in search of the true meaning of the word ‘accountant’.

Here at AccountingWEB towers, we’re happy to support of Xero’s campaign to change the dictionary definition of ‘accountant’. However, we can’t help but think that the Kiwi cloud botherers have opened an industrial-sized can of worms with this promotional play.

In case you missed it, earlier this month Xero launched a petition asking the Oxford English Dictionary to change its definition of the word ‘accountant’.

The current entry defines an accountant as “a person whose job it is to keep or inspect financial accounts”, which I think we can all agree is a little outdated. The word ‘keep’ alone conjures up images of the dusty storerooms I used to frequent in my time as a purchase ledger clerk before my career as a jet-setting journalist took off…

While it’s unclear how old this current definition is, the word itself has changed significantly over the centuries. Deriving from the Middle French word compter (to keep count), which itself took its origin from the Latin word computare (to calculate or estimate), for many years the word was written accomptant, but evolved sometime in the early 1900s into its current form.

In an open letter attached to the petition, Xero’s UK MD Gary Turner suggests amending the term to “a person whose job it is to keep or inspect and advise on financial accounts”.

While this is a good starter for 10, dust off the accounting archaeologist kit and dig down a little, and you start to find the first signs of disagreement. A LinkedIn post on the subject I stumbled upon discussing this topic uncovered 19 different definitions from accountants, ranging from “a consultant with primary responsibility to help management to achieve business objectives” to “the person that makes the CEO look good”.

Scrape off another layer of accounting history and we bang our shovel on a bone of contention. For the UK, the home of the OED, the very term is a loaded one as unlike its American CPA counterpart it is not protected, meaning any Tom, Dick or Harriet can call themselves an accountant.

This hot potato surfaces regularly on AccountingWEB’s Any Answers forum, usually with spectacular results (mainly for our moderation team) as Institute members and those they consider 'unqualified' duke it out over the word. If one was being pedantic (heaven forbid), one might argue that ‘chartered accountant’ is our equivalent, but if a shift in public perception is what you’re after that’s hardly going to cut the Colemans.

Drill down further into the accounting strata, and are we talking about accountants in practice or industry? While the lines have always been a little blurry and getting fuzzier still with likes of the virtual FD et al lurching into the mainstream, there are still fundamental differences between the tasks your common or garden management accountant and their counterpart in practice perform on a daily basis.

And tin hats at the ready folks: where does the advisory vs compliance debate fit into this? But let’s leave that for another time.

So branded snapbacks (or hats, to you and I) off to Xero for launching a decent media wheeze with a serious message behind it. The petition has already garnered 570 signatures, and could very well result in a change. However, much like many of the issues facing the country and the world at present, we don’t expect this particular debate will be solved any time soon.

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