What is a Bean Counter?
The term bean counter is often used negatively to describe an overly zealous or fastidious accountant, although other financial comptrollers may also fit the description. While 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 pantry. Such a person may also scrutinize each department's budget to find any form of potential waste, no matter how insignificant or nominal it appears to be. Project managers often fear this type of accountant, since budget cuts and lengthy audits could follow close behind.
The phrase has only been in the public arena since the 1970s, although it sounds as if it should be of a much older origin. Few sources even speculate on the selection of beans as the object of such a laborious count. It is possible that the description was inspired by overzealous kitchen inventory takers who insisted on counting every bean in a bag or every potato in a sack. The act of counting every bean to the exclusion of more important duties would be viewed by many as the ultimate act of micromanagement. The term may have entered the popular vernacular through the commercial or military food industries, where strict inventory controls are common.
When the term was first used, bean counters were financial comptrollers and accountants who showed an abnormal amount of interest in even the smallest details of a company's finances. Originally, almost anyone employed in accounting fields was informally described this way, with little to no pejorative meaning attached. Indeed, many professional accountants and comptrollers proudly refer to themselves with this name.
In recent years, however, the title has not exactly been a positive one for accountants. An increasing number of people hold financial professionals responsible for the dismantling or cancellation of programs due to budgetary concerns. Whenever a cost overrun is detected or a budget limit is exceeded, it is usually a bean counter who notices it first. This ability to mothball a multi-million dollar project over budgetary concerns can lead to some friction between project managers and the company's financial watchdogs. Sometimes, an accountant needs to know when it's appropriate to report a shortage of beans and when it's better to learn to live without them.
I can tell you with great accuracy what is the etymology of the term bean counter. It originated before the time of Christ in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, where people who did accounting were probably called "stone counters." Suggesting it had anything with beans is incorrect.
One of your submitters came close, but not very. The modern term meaning an accountant originated at a news conference in Teheran in 1948 because a group of international newspaper reporters misunderstood a word from a politician with a large nose.
Want the whole story, plus the name of the politician? Show some interest and perhaps I will tell you all about it. -- Ross M.
I use this term frequently, to describe people who are small-picture thinkers more focused on short-term costs rather than long-term effects.
A lot of corporations who employ people with a bean-counter mentality (not always even accountants) make stupid decisions that seem to save money "in this fiscal quarter" (for example), but which cost the company more money over the course of the next year.
That is the epitome of the negative connotation of this term, and American corporations are plagued by this kind of thinking.
An abacus was used by the Chinese centuries ago to count and multiply. The abacus was made of beans on wires. That is where bean counters came from.
@jeancastle00, while you might have an excellent point in asserting that bean counters make very detail oriented financial workers I think it is important to mention that beyond the details and the ability to see the whole picture must be an acquired skill as well.
Accountants and inventory control workers can get so overwhelmed by counting and making sure detail numbers are correct that the overall image or thought about the subject is lost to small details.
It is a combination of both the detailed seeker and picture painter that makes for a proper outlook on things financial.
While the term bean counter can be somewhat viewed as a negative term, I actually look for the characteristics of a bean counter when I hire any sort of financial services employee.
When people have an eye for detail and a desire to count every bean in the cupboard, then you know they are dedicated to the task that they have been charged with.
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