COMPASS.

The discussion of pair of stairs got onto the subject of compass(es), and after discovering there were three words in Russian (компас [kómpas] for ‘instrument for determining direction,’ буссоль [bussól'] for ‘surveyor’s compass,’ and циркуль [tsírkul'] for ‘instrument for describing circles,’ the last ultimately from Latin circulus—and why “describing” rather than “drawing,” now that I think of it?), I checked the OED and found the following extraordinarily messy etymology:
[a. F. compas (12th c. in Littré) ‘measure, pair of compasses, circle’; in mod.F. also ‘mariner's compass’; = Pr. compas, Sp. compas ‘pair of compasses, measure, rule of life, pattern’, Pg. compasso ‘pair of compasses’, It. compasso ‘a compasse, a round, also a paire of compasses’ (Florio); med.L. compassus = circinus pair of compasses (Du Cange). Cf. also Ger. compass, kompass, mariner's compass, formerly also gnomon, sun-dial, portable dial, Du. kompas, Sw. compass, kompass, Da. compas, Norw. kompas, (all) mariner's compass. (This is the exclusive sense in the Teutonic langs., as ‘pair of compasses’ is predominant in the Romanic.)
  The history of this word and its associated verb in the Romanic langs. has not yet been determined, and it presents many points of uncertainty. It is doubtful whether the n. is Common Romanic (the Sp. being app. from Fr. or Pr.), and as yet uncertain whether the n. is derived from the vb., or the vb. from the n. If the n. was the origin, it would predicate a L. type *compassus, f. com- together or intensive + ? passus step, pace; if the vb. was the earlier, compassare would be ‘to pass or step together’ or ‘completely’ (see Diez passare), and *compassus, compasso, the action of doing so. The early history of the senses of the n. is equally obscure: in OF., ‘measure’, primarily perhaps ‘measure kept in walking together’, ‘artifice, subtilty’, and ‘pair of compasses’, appear all to be early senses; it is at present impossible to say whether the instrument took its name from ‘measuring’ or from ‘equal stepping’. It is probable that the sense ‘circumference, circle, round’ which is slightly exemplified in OF., but has received so great a development in Eng., is derived from the name of the instrument; but the converse is also possible; cf. L. circinus compasses, from circa round, etc.; also Ger. zirkel, (1) circle, (2) compasses. The later application to the Mariner's Compass, recognized in modern French, but chiefly developed in English and the Teut. langs., is also of obscure origin; it may easily have arisen out of the sense ‘circle’ or ‘circuit’, as showing the circle of the winds; but in German this sense appears to have been preceded by those of ‘gnomon’ and ‘sun-dial’, which may point in another direction. The Greek name of the circinus or compasses was διαβήτης, from διαβαίνειν to stride or walk with the legs apart, to stride, step, or pass over: it is not impossible that compassus and compassare may have been employed to render these words, and as διαβήτης also meant the gnomon of a sun-dial, it is conceivable that this indicates the way in which compassus came to be used for dial, and mariner's compass.
  The OF. senses all appear early in ME. In the uncertainty as to the relations between these, it is impossible to arrange them in any certain order in Eng., and that adopted is merely provisional, and subject to alteration when Romanic scholars shall have ascertained the previous history of the word in their own domain.]

If somebody had asked me the etymology of compass, I would have said confidently “Oh, it’s from Latin compassus” and thought no more about it. This is a good example of why etymology involves a lot more than giving the earlier form of a word. (And I expect the etymology will get even longer and more complicated when they get around to revising this entry for the third edition.)

Comments

  1. A few miscellanea:
    One of the meanings of L. describere is to make a sketch (as for use in a painting), which is not surprising when we recall that scribere originally = inscribere, ‘to scratch’.
    Describe is still in use in geometrical circles (ha!) as a general term, the hypernym of inscribe and circumscribe.
    Indeed, English write, though from a different IE source, originally had the same general meaning ‘to cut, tear, scratch’. It’s curious, as AHD4 says,that this word is preserved in English alone of all the modern Western European languages: all the others use descendants of scribere or transparent borrowings of it.
    Διαβήτης is etymologically ‘that which straddles’, which certainly applies to the geometer’s compass as well as the gnomon; it also meant a siphon, hence modern diabetes, the disease in which water siphons through the body from mouth to urethra at a distressing rate (as I know all too well).
    The archaic future perfect in the last sentence of the OED quotation shows nicely how the language, even the scholarly language, has changed since Murray’s day.
    So what is the etymology of буссоль, then?

  2. Maxim Afanasiev says:

    > there were three words in Russian (компас [kómpas] for ‘instrument for
    > determining direction,’ буссоль [bussól'] for ‘surveyor’s compass,’
    Just a comment regarding the Russian words (“компас”, “буссоль”,
    “циркуль”): it is even more varied than that, because, as regards the
    Mariner’s compass, the Russian seamen, especially military, make a point
    of putting the stress on the last syllable, unlike everybody else. There
    are, by the way, several other words in Russian that are supposed to be
    pronounced or used differently by “real seamen”, as opposed to the rest
    of us, like “рапорт”, “ходить”, etc.
    > ‘instrument for describing circles,’ the last ultimately from Latin
    > circulus — and why “describing” rather than “drawing,” now that I
    > think of it?),
    “Describing” a circle is actually quite explainable: the root of
    the word also has a well-established meaning of “follow” in Russian. Nor
    are Russians alone in this: the French “décriver”, “to describe”,
    can also mean following a trajectory, as in “l’avion
    décrivait une courbe”. Sorry if you knew it all along and the “why”
    above was for something else that I have missed :-)
    Incidentally, the French allso have a word “boussole”:
    http://nouveau-dictionnaire.la-connaissance.net/definition-nouveau-dictionnaire_mot-boussole_3_b_o_5404.html
    that means a compass of any kind, and is supposed to be of Italian
    origin; I wonder if the Russian “буссоль” has been borrowed from French
    at some point, something that would explain it only having a specialized
    meaning in Russian.
    – Maxim

  3. If anything, I’d think that the revised etymology for “compass” in the third edition will be significantly pared down. Keep in mind that this entry is early in the alphabet, so when it was written the editorial style was still in flux. You can find some pretty entertaining commentary in those early entries, often scornfully dismissing etymological speculation. This note for “coil” is a classic:
    The conjectures that coil may be ‘related’ to Gael. coileid ‘stir, movement, noise’, or to goilim ‘I boil’, goileadh, ‘boiling’, or to goill ‘shield, war, fight’, are mere random ‘shots’, without any justification, phonetic or historical. Coil is unknown in Scotland, and no evidence connects it with Ireland. Gaelic or Irish words do not enter English through the air, with phonetic change on the way!
    You can find similar comments by doing an advance search for “guess” in the etymology field (as in “bad guess”, “gratuitous guess”, “desperate guess”, “ludicrous guess”, etc.).

  4. And now I realize that I first read that “classic” right here on Languagehat.

  5. Sorry if you knew it all along and the “why” above was for something else that I have missed
    Sorry, I should have been clearer. I am aware of the technical sense of describe, but I find it odd that it should be used in the definition of a Russian word in a bilingual dictionary. Lexicographers seem to delight in using arcane terminology rather than focusing on what would be of most use to the nonspecialist user.
    Thanks very much for your excursus on the use of stress as a sailors’ shibboleth! And yes, буссоль was borrowed from French boussole, itself from Italian bussola, from Medieval Latin buxola ‘little box,’ a diminutive of Latin buxum ‘boxwood’ (from which Late Latin had all sorts of derivatives like buxis, buxida, buxta, boxta, bosta, bossida, giving French words like buis, boîte, boiter).

  6. xiaolongnu says:

    Well, the other thing about “describe” is that many compasses don’t come equipped with a pencil attachment. They can be used to describe a circle but *not* to draw one. If I recall correctly, the point is to use them to measure radii and segmental arcs (but it’s been a long time since geometry, as my high-school alumni association keeps reminding me).

  7. Ah, good point. OK, I withdraw my objection.

  8. Maxim Afanasiev says:

    > Sorry, I should have been clearer. I am aware of the technical sense
    > of describe, but I find it odd that it should be used in the
    > definition of a Russian word in a bilingual dictionary. Lexicographers
    > seem to delight in using arcane terminology rather than focusing on
    > what would be of most use to the nonspecialist user.
    I have missed the point even farther than I had initially suspected,
    then; I must confess I thought the “why” was about the — supposedly
    unknown — _Russian_ use of a word meaning “describe” to, well, describe
    the drawing of, or following, a trajectory, overlooking the fact that
    English has it, too, or that the initial remark was about a by-lingual
    dictionary. This makes my mistake more stupid, but somewhat less rash,
    I suppose — at least I didn’t try to teach the proper English usage. :-)
    > Thanks very much for your excursus on the use of stress as a sailors’
    > shibboleth!
    As for the Russian sailor’s shibboleth, it’s not just the stress in some
    words, but also usage: a ship is supposed to “walk”, not “sail”, to a
    destination, for example.
    > Posted by: xiaolongnu at September 7, 2007 01:30 PM:
    >
    > …Well, the other thing about “describe” is that many compasses don’t
    > come equipped with a pencil attachment. They can be used to describe a
    > circle but *not* to draw one. If I recall correctly, the point is to
    > use them to measure radii and segmental arcs (but it’s been a long
    > time since geometry, as my high-school alumni association keeps
    > reminding me).
    As for the drawing instrument that looks like a compass without a
    pencil, mentioned above, I believe it is often confused with a compass,
    but actually has a different name — at least, in Russian, the language
    this discussion started from. Draftsmen call it “measurer”
    (“измеритель”);
    I strongly suspect it is not _really_ called a compass in English,
    either, but I don’t have a suitable dictionary at hand. If I am correct
    about that, the use of “describe” can not be attributed to “compasses
    without pencils”. Or do I miss something again? :-)
    – Maxim

  9. “It’s curious, as AHD4 says,that this word is preserved in English alone of all the modern Western European languages.”
    Swedish has ‘rita’ – to draw a picture.

  10. Incidentally, Japanese also has this scratch-write pair (written/scratched in different kanji, which are all Chinese in origin):
    kaku
    書く for writing letters/characters
    kaku/egaku
    http://www.nisk.jp/search/digitalkanji.asp?code=8F91
    描く for drawing pictures, etc
    http://www.nisk.jp/search/digitalkanji.asp?code=9560
    kaku
    掻く for scratching

  11. I believe that in English sailors use the term “divider”–to google an example, http://www.clipperlight.com/dividers.html –for an instrument like a compass that is used to mark out distances on charts. Mathematicians, on the other hand, use the term “compass” to refer to a similar notional instrument used to construct points, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compass_and_straightedge .

  12. michael farris says:

    As long as we’re on compassish vocabulary I wonder what the Russian for ‘scribe’ is/was.
    A scribe in English was/is (among other things) a compass like contraption used to trace circles on the ice. Figure skaters used to use them in practicing compulsory figures.
    You can see Midori Ito using one at the beginning of this video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbGJlHfv5U0

  13. David Marjanović says:

    The thing to draw circles with is called “compass” in English? Bizarre. ~:-|

    It’s curious, as AHD4 says,that this word is preserved in English alone of all the modern Western European languages.

    The word is present in German, and evidently in its original sense: ritzen “to scratch lines”. Imagine using a knife to write runes on wood…

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Then maybe German already counts as “Central European”. After all, what’s called Naher Osten “Near East” in German is “Middle East” in English…

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Maxim, the French word for ‘to describe’ is décrire not décriver, which does not exist. This verb, like écrire ‘to write’, has a -v- in some of its forms, including those of the imperfect tense, hence décrivait.
    David, it seems that hardly anyone refers to the Near East any more, at least on the American side of the Atlantic. The whole area is referred to as the Middle East, which should properly be located East of the Mediterranean without including any part of it.

  16. I meant, of course, preserved in the sense of ‘write’; the other senses continue to appear, as you all have kindly shown. But e.g. in German reissen ‘write’ has been completely replaced by schreiben, leaving reissen ‘tear’ untouched.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, so reißen is the cognate, not ritzen… that makes sense regarding the vowel length. Vowel length is, however, often not cognate between English and German (…or within German).

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