[kuhm-puh s]
See more synonyms for compass on
  1. an instrument for determining directions, as by means of a freely rotating magnetized needle that indicates magnetic north.
  2. the enclosing line or limits of any area; perimeter: You can find anything you want downtown within the compass of ten square blocks.
  3. space within limits; area; extent; range; scope: the narrow compass of the strait; the broad compass of the novel.
  4. Also called range. the total range of tones of a voice or of a musical instrument.
  5. due or proper limits; moderate bounds: Their behavior stayed within the compass of propriety.
  6. a passing round; circuit: the compass of a year.
  7. 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.
  8. (initial capital letter) Astronomy.
    1. Also called Mariner's Compass.the constellation Pyxis.
    2. Compasses,the constellation Circinus.
  1. curved; forming a curve or arc: a compass timber; compass roof.
verb (used with object)
  1. to go or move round; make the circuit of: It would take a week to compass his property on foot.
  2. to extend or stretch around; hem in; surround; encircle: An old stone wall compasses their property.
  3. to attain or achieve; accomplish; obtain.
  4. to contrive; plot; scheme: to compass a treacherous plan.
  5. to make curved or circular.
  6. 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 formscom·pass·a·ble, adjectivecom·pass·less, adjectiveout·com·pass, verb (used with object)pre·com·pass, verb (used with object), nounun·com·pass·a·ble, adjective

Synonyms for compass

See more synonyms for on
3. See range. Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for compass

Contemporary Examples of compass

Historical Examples of compass

  • 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.


    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


  1. an instrument for finding direction, usually having a magnetized needle which points to magnetic north swinging freely on a pivot
  2. Also called: pair of compasses (often plural) 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
  3. limits or rangewithin the compass of education
  4. music the interval between the lowest and highest note attainable by a voice or musical instrument
  5. archaic a circular course
verb (tr)
  1. to encircle or surround; hem in
  2. to comprehend or grasp mentally
  3. to achieve; attain; accomplish
  4. obsolete to plot
Derived Formscompassable, adjective

Word Origin for compass

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

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

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 © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.