Bean counter

Bean counter is an idiom that was first used in English in the 1970s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, ballpark figure, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, close but no cigar, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the expression bean counter, its etymology, and some examples of its use in sentences.

A bean counter is someone who concentrates solely on accounting, inventory, profit and numbers at the expense of other aspects of business and of living. A bean counter is usually an accountant or someone who focuses on figures, statistics and spreadsheets, rather than the bigger picture. While the term bean counter may be used to simply refer to an accountant, it is usually an expression that is used derisively to mean that the person is obsessed with trivial details. There are many fanciful stories as to the origin of the idiom bean counter, but the most plausible is that it is a translation of a German idiom. The German word Erbsenzähler was used as early at the 1660s, and translates as “pea counter”. Erbsenzähler is a term for a nitpicker. The plural of bean counter is bean counters.


Cisco, which built its empire on physical hardware, acknowledges that businesses are splashing more money on public cloud services: bean counter IDC has predicted that spending on cloud IT infrastructure will reach $82.9bn in 2022 – by which point it will account for 56 per cent of all IT infrastructure spend. (The Register)

Equally striking is Green’s sense of a possible timeline for getting this done – again, coming from someone with the caution of a bean counter. (The Saint Louis American)

Thus sayeth the Lord High Richard Carranza, the chief racial bean counter at the world’s largest failure factory, the New York City Department of Education. (The New York Post)

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