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Pairs of compasses for drawing and cutting
Magnetic compass


Etymology 1[edit]

From Middle English compas (a circle, circuit, limit, form, a mathematical instrument), from Old French compas, from Medieval Latin compassus (a circle, a circuit), from Latin com- (together) + passus (a pace, step, later a pass, way, route); see pass, pace.


compass (plural compasses)

Compass render
  1. A magnetic or electronic device used to determine the cardinal directions (usually magnetic or true north).
    • 1625, [Samuel] Purchas, “Of the Improvement of Nauigation in Later Times, []”, in Purchas His Pilgrimes. [], 1st part, London: [] William Stansby for Henrie Fetherstone, [], OCLC 960103045, 2nd book, § I, page 2:
      [H]ow many Seas to our fore-fathers impaſſable, for want of the Compaſſe?
    • 1689/1690, John Locke, On improvement of understanding
      He that [...] first discovered the use of the compass [...] did more for the propagation of knowledge [...] than those who built workhouses.
    • 1890, Wilhelm Westhofen, The Forth Bridge
      a glance at his compass would have shown him that a northerly course instead of an easterly could not be right
  2. A pair of compasses (a device used to draw an arc or circle).
    • 1701, Jonathan Swift, A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome, Chapter 5
      to fix one foot of their compass wherever they please
  3. (music) The range of notes of a musical instrument or voice.
  4. (obsolete) A space within limits; an area.
    • 1763, M. Le Page Du Pratz, History of Louisiana (PG), page 47:
      In going up the Missisippi [sic], we meet with nothing remarkable before we come to the Detour aux Anglois, the English Reach: in that part the river takes a large compass.
    • 1711, Joseph Addison, The Spectator
      Animals, in their generation, are wiser than the sons of men but their wisdom is confined to a few particulars, and lies in a very narrow compass.
    • 1913, D[avid] H[erbert] Lawrence, “Chapter 14”, in Sons and Lovers, London: Duckworth & Co. [], OCLC 855945:
      Clara thought she had never seen him look so small and mean. He was as if trying to get himself into the smallest possible compass.
    • 1939 September, D. S. Barrie, “The Railways of South Wales”, in Railway Magazine, page 161:
      Among tank engines, the 0-6-2 wheel arrangement was by far the most numerous, there being nearly 450 of this arrangement, which offers the advantage of good power and adhesive weight, coupled with adequate tank and bunker capacity, within a limited compass.
  5. (obsolete) An enclosing limit; a boundary, a circumference.
    within the compass of an encircling wall
  6. Moderate bounds, limits of truth; moderation; due limits; used with within.
    • c. 1610, John Davies, Historical Tracts
      In two hundred years before (I speak within compass), no such commission had been executed.
  7. (archaic) Scope.
    • c. 1806–1809 (date written), William Wordsworth, “(please specify the page)”, in The Excursion, being a Portion of The Recluse, a Poem, London: [] Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, [], published 1814, OCLC 1108654590:
      the compass of his argument
    • 1748, David Hume, Enquiries concerning the human understanding and concerning the principles of moral, Oxford University Press (1973), section 8:
      There is a truth and falsehood in all propositions on this subject, and a truth and falsehood, which lie not beyond the compass of human understanding.
    • 1844, Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia
      How very commonly we hear it remarked that such and such thoughts are beyond the compass of words! I do not believe that any thought, properly so called, is out of the reach of language.
  8. (obsolete) Range, reach.
    • c. 1587–1588, [Christopher Marlowe], Tamburlaine the Great. [] The First Part [], part 1, 2nd edition, London: [] [R. Robinson for] Richard Iones, [], published 1592, OCLC 932920499; reprinted as Tamburlaine the Great (A Scolar Press Facsimile), Menston, Yorkshire; London: Scolar Press, 1973, →ISBN, Act II, scene i:
      Then when our powers in points of ſwords are ioin’d
      And cloſde in compaſſe of the killing bullet,
      Though ſtraite the paſſage and the port be made,
      That leads to Pallace of my brothers life,
      Proud is his fortune if we pierce it not.
  9. (obsolete) A passing round; circuit; circuitous course.
Derived terms[edit]
The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout § Translations.

Etymology 2[edit]

From Middle English compassen (to go around, make a circuit, draw a circle, contrive, intend), from Old French compasser; from the noun; see compass as a noun.


compass (third-person singular simple present compasses, present participle compassing, simple past and past participle compassed)

  1. To surround; to encircle; to environ; to stretch round.
  2. To go about or round entirely; to traverse.
  3. (dated) To accomplish; to reach; to achieve; to obtain.
    • 1763, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emilius; or, an essay on education, translated by M. Nugent, page 117:
      [...] they never find ways sufficient to compass that end.
    • 1816, Catholicon: or, the Christian Philosopher, volume 3, from July to December 1816, page 56:
      [...] to settle the end of our action or disputation; and then to take fit and effectual means to compass that end.
    • 1857, Gilbert Burnet, Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time: from the Restoration of King Charles the Second to the Treaty of Peace at Utrecht in the Reign of Queen Anne, page 657:
      [...] and was an artful flatterer, when that was necessary to compass his end, in which generally he was successful.
    • 1921 November 23, The New Republic, volume 28, number 364, page 2:
      The immediate problem is how to compass that end: by the seizure of territory or by the cultivation of the goodwill of the people whose business she seeks.
  4. (dated) To plot; to scheme (against someone).
    • 1600, The Arraignment and Judgement of Captain Thomas Lee, published in 1809, by R. Bagshaw, in Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials, volume 1, page 1403–04:
      That he plotted and compassed to raise Sedition and Rebellion [...]
    • 1794 November 1, Speech of Mr. Erskine in Behalf of Hardy, published in 1884, by Chauncey Allen Goodrich, in Select British Eloquence, page 719:
      But it went beyond it by the loose construction of compassing to depose the King, [...]
    • 1915, The Wireless Age, volume 2, page 580:
      The Bavarian felt a mad wave of desire for her sweep over him. What scheme wouldn't he compass to mould that girl to his wishes.


compass (comparative more compass, superlative most compass)

  1. (obsolete) In a circuit; round about.
    • 1658, Thomas Browne, Urne-Burial,[1] Penguin (2005), →ISBN, page 9:
      Near the same plot of ground, for about six yards compasse were digged up coals and incinerated substances, []


Middle English[edit]



  1. Alternative form of compas