Compasses or Compass? - Which is Correct?
by V. Wor. Bro. I. J. Nathan G. L.
This is a question that has concerned a number of members but a simple answer cannot be given. There has been a suggestion made that the plural form came into common use when the mariners compass was invented. The word compas has been recorded as having been used in the 14th century. Three examples are: 1340 "craftily casten with a compas"; 1387 "made the first compas"; and in 1391 by Chaucer who wrote of the "poynt of my compas". In 1551 this sentence was recorded "haue a payre of compasse aptelye made for to draw the circles." In 1570 a mathematical text had "geometrie teacheth the vse of the Rule and cumpasse." Swift wrote in 1745 "to fix one foot of their compass wherever they think fit." As recently as 1845 Emerson wrote "defined by compass and measuring wand."
Earliest uses of the plural form have been recorded in the 16th century. In 1555 "we took owre compases and beganne to measure the sea coasts" and an example from 1594 "how to make with your compasses a perpendicular line to fall from any point given another right line." Milton wrote in Paradise Lost in 1667 "in his hand he took the golden compasses to circumscribe this universe."
The mariners compass first appeared in 1515 "Some the anker layde . . . . one kepte the compass and watched the our glasse." In 1552 this was recorded "ane skypper can nocht gyde his schip without direction of his compas."
In at least four verses of the Old Testament compass appears in its singular form. Isaiah 44:13 "The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass . . . . "Other references are Exodus 27:5, Exodus 38:4 and Proverbs 8:27.
Early masonic rituals do not show any marked preference for either form. Prichard's Masonry Dissected of 1730 uses the singular four times and the plural once. Three Distinct Knocks published in 1760 has the plural form seven times and the singular twice. Jachin and Boaz which appeared in 1762 shows a slight preference for the singular over the plural by five to four.
In the United States some jurisdictions use compass and there are also masonic clubs known as square and compass clubs.
After reading this far it would be a bold reader who would say one or the other was correct. There is, however, a criterion of correctness for the modern New Zealand constitution mason and that is how the word appears in our Book of Constitution and Ritual. As it always appears as compasses then as far as our working is concerned compasses is the correct form.
Published from the proceedings of The Waikato Lodge of Research, No. 445 A.F. & A.M. New Zealand.