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[sek-stuh nt] /ˈsɛk stənt/
an astronomical instrument used to determine latitude and longitude at sea by measuring angular distances, especially the altitudes of sun, moon, and stars.
(initial capital letter) Astronomy. the constellation Sextans.
Origin of sextant
1590-1600; < Latin sextant- (stem of sextāns) sixth part of a unit. See sext1, -ant
Can be confused
sextant, sextet, sexton. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.
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Examples from the Web for sextant
Historical Examples
  • About five minutes before local noon the sea captain goes to the bridge with sextant in hand.

    My Attainment of the Pole Frederick A. Cook
  • The sextant is the one most in use and so will be described first.

    Lectures in Navigation Ernest Gallaudet Draper
  • The flat bar which carries the nonius scale and index-glass of a quadrant, octant, quintant, or sextant.

    The Sailor's Word-Book William Henry Smyth
  • Now read the angle of the height of that light by using your sextant.

    Lectures in Navigation Ernest Gallaudet Draper
  • Without an English sextant you cannot take an altitude at all.

    The Man Who Laughs Victor Hugo
  • So saying Johnson turned upon his heel and dived below for his sextant.

    The Pirate Island Harry Collingwood
  • “Twenty-six minutes,” continued the captain, reading off his sextant.

    Newton Forster Captain Frederick Marryat
  • Prof. had forgotten his sextant and rode back to our main camp for it.

    A Canyon Voyage Frederick S. Dellenbaugh
  • It would be like chucking the sextant and the compass overboard.

    Lefty Locke Pitcher-Manager Burt L. Standish
  • The sun reached its height, and Lund busied himself with his sextant.

    A Man to His Mate J. Allan Dunn
British Dictionary definitions for sextant


an optical instrument used in navigation and consisting of a telescope through which a sighting of a heavenly body is taken, with protractors for determining its angular distance above the horizon or from another heavenly body
a sixth part of a circle having an arc which subtends an angle of 60°
Word Origin
C17: from Latin sextāns one sixth of a unit
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 sextant

instrument for determining latitude, 1620s, from Modern Latin sextans, said to have been coined c.1600 by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, from Latin sextans "a sixth," from sex "six" (see six). So called because the sextans has a graduated arc equal to a sixth part of a circle.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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sextant in Science
An instrument containing a graduated 60° arc and a movable pivoted arm corresponding to the radius of the arc's circle, used in celestial navigation to measure the altitude of a celestial body in order to determine the observer's latitude and longitude. A horizontally mounted telescope and two small mirrors are arranged so that the observer can, by moving the pivoted arm, sight the horizon and the reflected image of the celestial body in the same line, giving a reading along the arc that is used to look up the observer's position in a published table.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
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