Intermediate+ Word of the Day: counter

counter (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) /ˈkaʊntɚ/ LISTEN

A man standing at a counter

As a noun, a counter is a flat surface found in stores or banks, where payment is taken or transactions are carried out. It is also a kind of long table or bar in a restaurant where customers can sit to eat, or, mainly in US English, the surface used for preparing food in kitchens (in the UK, this would more commonly be called a worktop). As an adverb, counter means ‘in the opposite direction’ or ‘in opposition’ and, as an adjective, it means ‘contrary or opposed to.’ As a verb, it means ‘to oppose’ or ‘to answer an attack with another one.’

Example sentences

  • Rodney took his vegetables to the counter to pay for them.
  • Leticia ate her lunch at the counter, rather than taking one of the individual tables.
  • Edward always wipes down the kitchen counters when he has finished cooking.
  • Fiona decided she couldn't marry Oliver; his beliefs ran counter to everything that was important to her.
  • I don't like the current government's policies, so it is nice to see a political party with a counter doctrine.
  • The locals countered the council's proposals for a new hotel with their own plans for a children's play area.
  • Ben hurled insults at Nina and she countered with some insults of her own.

Words often used with counter

over the counter: something you can buy freely, especially medicines that don’t require a prescription. Example: “You will have to go to the doctor to get a prescription for antibiotics; you can’t buy them over the counter.”

Additional information

Counter is also a prefix that means ‘contrary to’ and is found in words like counterattack, counterclockwise (US), counterbalance, and counteract. Most often, counter, as a prefix, is used without a hyphen, but some words can be spelled with a hyphen too, such as counter-attack or counter-revolution. If you are unsure whether to use a hyphen or not, check a dictionary.

In pop culture

A counterpart is something or someone that is similar to, or the same as, something or someone else, especially in terms of function. So, for instance, you could say that the French President is the US President’s French counterpart. Counterpart is also the title of a TV show about a man who meets his counterpart from an alternative reality. You can watch the trailer for the show here:

Did you know?

Under the counter (or under the table) refers to things being bought illegally, with the idea being that the transaction is hidden from sight. It also refers to payments for workers that are made illegally, without tax. Example: “Several books are banned in that country, but people still manage to buy them under the counter.”

Origin

Counter, meaning ‘a flat surface found in stores or banks,’ dates back to the mid-14th century, and originally meant ‘a table where a money lender does business.’ It came into English from the Anglo-French comptoir and the Old French contouer (‘counting room’ or ‘table or bench of a merchant or a bank‘). It can be traced back to the Medieval Latin computatorium (place of accounts), from the Latin computatus, the past participle of the verb computare (to count or sum up), from the prefix com– (with or together) and the verb putare (to reckon), and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root pau– (to cut, strike or stamp). Counter is related to the Latin pavire (to beat, ram or tread down), the Greek paiein (to strike), and the Lithuanian pjauti (to cut) and pjūklas (saw), as well as the English words account, amputation, berate, compute, computer, count, deputy, dispute, pavement, pit, rate and reputation. The main sense of counter expanded from just banks to shops in the 19th century, and then further, in the mid-19th century, to display cases in shops. The sense ‘flat kitchen surface’ was first used in the late 19th century. The expression over the counter dates back to the late 19th century, while under the counter, meaning ‘illegal payment,’ was first used in the 1920s. Counter, the verb meaning ‘to go against, come against or engage someone in combat,’ dates back to the late 14th century. It was originally short for acountren or encountren, and came into English from the Old French encontrer (‘to meet or come across’ or ‘to confront, fight or oppose’), from the noun encontre (a meeting, fight or opportunity), which derived from the adverb and preposition encontre (against or counter to). It can be traced back to the Late Latin incontra (in front of) from the Latin prefix in– and contra (against), which in turn is made up of the prefix com– (with or together) and the comparative particle tr, making it somewhat related to the other meaning of counter. Counter-, as a prefix meaning ‘against or in opposition’ as well as in return or corresponding,’ dates back to around the year 1300. It comes from the Anglo-French prefix countre-, from the same Latin source (contra) as the verb. The adverb, meaning ‘contrary, in opposition or in an opposite direction,’ comes from the prefix and dates back to the mid-15th century. The adjective, meaning ‘acting in opposition,’ dates back to the late 16th century. Linguists disagree on whether it evolved from the adverb or directly from the preposition.

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