Definition of compass in English:


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  • 1

    (also magnetic compass)
    An instrument containing a magnetized pointer which shows the direction of magnetic north and bearings from it.

    The use of the compass for navigation at sea was reported from China c.1100, western Europe 1187, Arabia c.1220, and Scandinavia c.1300, although it probably dates from much earlier. Since the early 20th century the magnetic compass has been superseded by the gyrocompass as primary equipment for ships and aircraft

    ‘walkers should be equipped with a map and compass’
    • ‘a magnetic compass’
    • ‘Crewe was ideally placed on the rail network, with connections running to all points of the compass’
    • ‘Point the binos in any direction and a digital compass takes a bearing.’
    • ‘Sailors have been comparing their compasses, which show magnetic north, to the sun and stars, which show true north, for many centuries and noting the results in logs stretching back to the year 1590.’
    • ‘This finding strengthened the idea that pigeons unable to see the sun rely on the earth's magnetic field as a compass.’
    • ‘As a result of globalisation, many states appear to have mislaid their maps, compasses and direction-finding instruments, even the will to set a course.’
    • ‘These are works of dry stone masonry meticulously assembled, some aligned directly with points of the compass.’
    • ‘A magnetometer is a device that, like the magnet of a compass, reacts to changes in the earth's magnetic field.’
    • ‘During the Cold War, nuclear danger grew to threaten all points of the compass.’
    • ‘Through binoculars they're visible at all points of the compass; gawky, fragile, birdlike skeletons of metal hauling skywards monstrous slabs of concrete and steel.’
    • ‘You look around at the highest peaks of the Rockies, and you're at the water epicenter of North America, where the glaciers and rivers flow to all points of the compass.’
    • ‘Letters continued to stream in from all points of the compass - 538 of them in a single day, with the temperature steadily mounting.’
    • ‘American roads also frustrated the traveller seeking to move diagonally rather than according to the four cardinal points of the compass.’
    • ‘It got me puzzling about the points of the compass.’
    • ‘If we were born with magnetic detectors, the compass would never have been invented, because we wouldn't need one.’
    • ‘This is easily determined by holding a compass near the magnet to determine if the strength of the magnet overrides the magnetic force of the poles.’
    • ‘While sipping hot tea, I tweak my compass declination and draw bearing lines on our map.’
    • ‘Then, using an electronic compass and ultrasonic sensors, it cuts the area about 10 times, ensuring a minimum of missed patches.’
    • ‘Yet there are more than two directions on a compass.’
    • ‘South is the least trustworthy direction on a compass.’
    • ‘Often we look to the church as a moral compass for direction.’
    • ‘Before long, my sense of bush direction usurped the compass.’
  • 2

    (also pair of compasses)
    An instrument for drawing circles and arcs and measuring distances between points, consisting of two arms linked by a movable joint, one arm ending in a point and the other usually carrying a pencil or pen.

    ‘a regular heptagon cannot be constructed accurately with only ruler and compass’
    • ‘Discover that despite the aid of pairs of compasses, scissors and anything else you consider useful, the most you can get in before it breaks is about 1 cm.’
    • ‘In the first plate of Europe, Urizen is portrayed majestically as an aged, Newtonian figure leaning down from the sun with a great pair of compasses to create the world.’
    • ‘Postulate she puts those on with a pair of compasses.’
    • ‘In fact, the Golden Section is likely to turn up fairly frequently in any design derived from the square and developed by applying a pair of compasses.’
    • ‘The men lever the women into the air or slide them on pointe across the stage, their legs as rigid as a pair of compasses.’
    • ‘Underneath is a cloaked and bearded figure on all fours with a pair of compasses in one hand.’
    • ‘In 1563, at the age of 17, Tycho observed a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn using a simple pair of compasses held close to his eye to measure the angle between the two planets on successive nights as the conjunction approached.’
    • ‘Some secondary admissions policies are geographically based literally a map and a pair of compasses; others put loyalty to local feeder schools first.’
    • ‘A pair of compasses was adjusted to roughly the right size radius.’
    • ‘She extended the callipers like a pair of compasses preparing to plot the landmarks on his face.’
    • ‘We can do this using compasses for drawing circles and a set-square for drawing lines at right-angles to other lines, and we don't need a ruler at all for measuring lengths!’
    • ‘We had some sturdy white board behind a cabinet, so I brought that out for him, along with a compass, yardstick, pencil, glue, and Exacto knife.’
    • ‘Set the points of a pencil compass to the width of the widest gap between the counter top and the wall.’
    • ‘A major step forward in proving that the circle could not be squared using ruler and compasses occurred in 1761 when Lambert proved that p was irrational.’
    • ‘Gauss had stated that the problems of duplicating a cube and trisecting an angle could not be solved with ruler and compasses but he gave no proofs.’
    • ‘It is wonderfully satisfying to make these pictures by hand, patiently, with pencil and paper, compass and straightedge.’
    • ‘Roughly, one measures everything with a ruler and compass and sets things up according to strict astrological correspondences.’
    • ‘Using a compass to create hundreds of circles in delicate works on paper, Hesse carried Minimalist repetition and seriality to the point of obsession.’
    • ‘She cleared her pens into a neon pink pencil case and put her compass carefully back in her box of mathematical tools.’
    • ‘Some came armed with T-scales, drawing boards, protractors and compasses.’
  • 3in singular The range or scope of something.

    ‘the event had political repercussions that are beyond the compass of this book’
    • ‘Extending the photograph beyond the compass of the glance into a continuum, he presents more information than a single frame could be expected to contain.’
    • ‘She was high in her praise of the level of organisation of last year's training sessions and suggests that reaching the decider this year is well within the compass of the minors.’
    • ‘We even relocate daybreak and sunset, which, one might surmise, are logical ways to determine the beginning and end of a given day, within the compass of clock-time.’
    • ‘To absorb 5,000 years of a country's rich cultural past within the compass of seven days, was like delving into a honeypot and emerging in a daze.’
    • ‘It is, almost, within the compass of our understanding.’
    • ‘Yet the moral of the book may be expressed within the compass of a single phrase - too much intelligence, and not enough brains.’
    • ‘Within the compass of faith the whole of life - indeed the whole of the universe - is embraced.’
    • ‘By ‘science’ he means ‘all that can fall within the compass of human understanding’.’
    • ‘Sometimes the facts of a case may fall within the compass of both constructive and gross negligence manslaughter so that a verdict of manslaughter may be available on either of those grounds.’
    • ‘No. 1 presents to us a good specimen of a general servant, one who will do anything within the compass of her capacities.’
    • ‘All of this, he believed, falls within the compass of science.’
    • ‘The needs and expectations of the enquiring traveller change rapidly and it would be impossible to meet them all within the compass of single volumes.’
    • ‘Can 2,000 years of church history be recorded within the compass of 200 pages?’
    • ‘The question is whether that school falls within the compass of this particular legislation.’
    • ‘Did such matters fall within the compass of judicial review at all?’
    • ‘The matter is totally within the compass of the jury's jurisdiction to determine.’
    • ‘As philosophers or historians we treat the datum as something impersonal to be brought within the compass of our own world of thought.’
    • ‘Complete achievement of these objectives within the compass of one individual lifetime is never possible, of course, but that is not the point.’
    • ‘Within the compass of these measurements, every outcome is inevitable.’
    • ‘The car stopped further back on North Terrace, probably not within the compass of the map, but at best somewhere towards that very far left-hand side of the map.’
    scope, range, extent, reach, span, breadth, width, orbit, ambit, stretch, limits, confines, parameters, extremities, bounds, boundary
    View synonyms
    1. 3.1The enclosing limits of an area.
      ‘this region had within its compass many types of agriculture’
      • ‘Within the relatively narrow compass of Northumberland and Durham - as it must seem to us today - it might even be said that he was a great one.’
      boundary, border, boundary line, bound, bounding line, partition line, frontier, edge, demarcation line, end point, cut-off point, termination
      View synonyms
    2. 3.2The range of notes that can be produced by a voice or a musical instrument.
      ‘the cellos were playing in a rather somber part of their compass’
      • ‘As a musical instrument the singing voice has wide tonal compass and uniquely variable pitch, intensity, and stress.’
      • ‘The modern concert harp has 46 or 47 strings and a compass of six and a half octaves.’




transitive verb

[with object]
  • 1 archaic Go around (something) in a circular course.

    ‘the ship wherein Magellan compassed the world’
    • ‘A Brisbane City Council radiovan has just compassed the streets announcing that the water will soon be cut off, period of outage unknown.’
    • ‘One of the Troopers made a patrol, compassing the property about twice an hour, while the other two were to stay in the house.’
    • ‘Raven continued turning the crank and the machine clicked and whirred as all the planets compassed about the sun on their courses.’
    1. 1.1Surround or enclose on all sides.
      • ‘they were compassed with numerous fierce and cruel tribes’
      surround, enclose, ring, encircle, circumscribe, skirt, bound, border, fringe
      View synonyms
  • 2 archaic Contrive to accomplish (something)

    ‘he compassed his end only by the exercise of violence’
    • ‘Edward III defined treason as imagining and compassing the death of the king; such imagining had to be accompanied by ‘overt acts’ to qualify as treasonous.’
    manage, find a way, engineer a way, arrange
    View synonyms





Middle English from Old French compas (noun), compasser (verb), based on Latin com- ‘together’ + passus ‘a step or pace’. Several senses (‘measure’, ‘artifice’, ‘circumscribed area’, and ‘pair of compasses’) which appeared in Middle English are also found in Old French, but their development and origin are uncertain. The transference of sense to the magnetic compass is held to have occurred in the related Italian word compasso, from the circular shape of the compass box.