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[kuhm-puh s] /ˈkʌm pəs/
an instrument for determining directions, as by means of a freely rotating magnetized needle that indicates magnetic north.
the enclosing line or limits of any area; perimeter:
You can find anything you want downtown within the compass of ten square blocks.
space within limits; area; extent; range; scope:
the narrow compass of the strait; the broad compass of the novel.
Also called range. the total range of tones of a voice or of a musical instrument.
due or proper limits; moderate bounds:
Their behavior stayed within the compass of propriety.
a passing round; circuit:
the compass of a year.
Often, compasses. an instrument for drawing or describing circles, measuring distances, etc., consisting generally of two movable, rigid legs hinged to each other at one end (usually used with pair of):
to spread the legs of a compass and draw a larger circle.
(initial capital letter) Astronomy.
  1. Also called Mariner's Compass. the constellation Pyxis.
  2. Compasses, the constellation Circinus.
curved; forming a curve or arc:
a compass timber; compass roof.
verb (used with object)
to go or move round; make the circuit of:
It would take a week to compass his property on foot.
to extend or stretch around; hem in; surround; encircle:
An old stone wall compasses their property.
to attain or achieve; accomplish; obtain.
to contrive; plot; scheme:
to compass a treacherous plan.
to make curved or circular.
to comprehend; to grasp, as with the mind:
His mind could not compass the extent of the disaster.
Origin of compass
1250-1300; (v.) Middle English compassen < Old French compasser to measure < Vulgar Latin *compāssāre, equivalent to compāss(us) equal step (Latin com- com- + pāssus pace1) + -āre v. suffix; (noun) Middle English compas < Old French, derivative of compasser
Related forms
compassable, adjective
compassless, adjective
outcompass, verb (used with object)
precompass, verb (used with object), noun
uncompassable, adjective
3. See range. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for compass
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • But, nerved as he was by desperation, he found the task greater than he could compass.

    Brave and Bold Horatio Alger
  • The rock is very magnetic, and the compass is quite useless.

  • I was tired of trying to steer a course for myself, with no compass to go by.

  • This fact is sustained by evidences teeming upon us from every point of the compass.

    Ridgeway Scian Dubh
  • We were without a compass, and steered by the direction of the wind and sea.

    Ned Myers James Fenimore Cooper
British Dictionary definitions for compass


an instrument for finding direction, usually having a magnetized needle which points to magnetic north swinging freely on a pivot
(often pl) Also called pair of compasses. an instrument used for drawing circles, measuring distances, etc, that consists of two arms, joined at one end, one arm of which serves as a pivot or stationary reference point, while the other is extended or describes a circle
limits or range: within the compass of education
(music) the interval between the lowest and highest note attainable by a voice or musical instrument
(archaic) a circular course
verb (transitive)
to encircle or surround; hem in
to comprehend or grasp mentally
to achieve; attain; accomplish
(obsolete) to plot
Derived Forms
compassable, adjective
Word Origin
C13: from Old French compas, from compasser to measure, from Vulgar Latin compassāre (unattested) to pace out, ultimately from Latin passus step
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for compass

c.1300, "space, area, extent, circumference," from Old French compas "circle, radius, pair of compasses" (12c.), from compasser "to go around, measure, divide equally," from Vulgar Latin *compassare "to pace out" (source of Italian compassare, Spanish compasar), from Latin com- "together" (see com-) + passus "a step" (see pace (n.)).

The mathematical instrument so called from mid-14c. The mariners' directional tool (so called since early 15c.) took the name, perhaps, because it's round and has a point like the mathematical instrument. The word is in most European languages, with a mathematical sense in Romance, a nautical sense in Germanic, and both in English.


c.1300, "to devise, plan;" early 14c. as "to surround, contain, envelop, enclose;" from Anglo-French cumpasser, from compass (n.). Related: Compassed; compassing.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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compass in Science
  1. A device used to determine geographical direction, usually consisting of a magnetic needle mounted on a pivot, aligning itself naturally with the Earth's magnetic field so that it points to the Earth's geomagnetic north or south pole.

  2. A device used for drawing circles and arcs and for measuring distances on maps, consisting of two legs hinged together at one end.

The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
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