General English

Cars & Driving

  • noun an instrument with a magnetized needle which always points to the magnetic north


  • An instrument for locating the magnetic north pole of the earth.
  • A mechanical drawing device used to draw circles.


  • An instrument which indicates a horizontal reference direction. Such an instrument usually consists of one or more magnetic needles which freely turn on a pivot, and which point to magnetic north.
  • Any instrument which indicates direction. Such a device need not be magnetic.


  • noun an instrument designed to calculate direction by indicating magnetic north

Origin & History of “compass”

The notion underlying compass is of ‘measuring out with paces’. It originated as a verb, vulgar Latin *compassāre ‘pace out’, a compound formed from the Latin intensive prefix com- and passus (source of English pace). This passed into Old French as compasser ‘measure’, and thence into English. The derived Old French noun compas was early applied to a pivoted two-armed measuring and drawing instrument, presumably inspired equally by the ideas ‘stepping’ and ‘measuring’, and English acquired this sense in the 14th century. The use of the word for a magnetic direction indicator, which dates from the 16th century, may be due to the device’s circular container.