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Points on a Compass, the Saga Continues (minicast)

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Remember Tom, the guy who’s still trying to recall a word he insists he learned long ago meaning “the points on a compass”? That call generated a boatload of proposed answers from listeners. But one response stood out above all the others, so Martha and Grant go back to Tom for a third time with what they hope is the right answer.

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  • A better question would have asked for the name of the points on a mariner’s compass as the bow compass also has a point. All of the 32 point of a magnetic compass have a specific or individual name:N, N by E, NNE, NE by N, NE, NE by E, ENE, E by N, E, E by S, ESE, SE by E, SE, SE by S, SSE, S by E, S, S by W, SSW, SW by S, SW, SW by W, WSW, W by S, W, W by N, WNW, NW by N, NW, NW by N, NNW, N by W. Naming the points in order is called boxing the compass. This recitation was required of seaman many years ago and Boy Scouts almost 70 years ago when I was a boy.

    During a lecture at the 21st International Congress of Vexillology in Buenos Aires two years ago, there was a discussion on the reason there are 32 rays on the sun on the Argentine flag. My theory is that they
    were derived from the 32 points on a magnetic compass.
    When the European navigators sailed the world in the 16th century they relyed on only two instruments: the magnetic comapass and the astrolab.

    From the OED CD:
    The mariner’s compass consists essentially of three parts, the bowl or box (n.2, sense 15), containing the card (n.2, sense 4) on which the 32 points of the compass are marked (see point), and the needle. According to its position or use on ship-board it is distinguished as binnacle-, hanging-, standard, steering-compass, etc. to box the compass: see box v.1 12; Also in the same sense to say the (or one’s) compass.
    c. Astron., etc. Applied with qualifying adjs. to special points of the celestial sphere, etc.: see cardinal, equinoctial, solstitial, vertical.
    cardinal points = Fr. points cardinaux; but the 32 points of the compass (sense B. 9) = Fr. pointes de la boussole, ou du compas.

    III. 9. Each of the equidistant points on the circumference of the mariner’s compass, indicated by one of the thirty-two rays drawn from the centre, which serve to particularize the part of the horizon whence the wind is blowing or in the direction of which an object lies; also transf. the angular interval between two successive points (one-eighth of a right angle, or 11° 15´). Hence, any of the corresponding points, or in general any point, of the horizon; thus often nearly = Direction. (In ordinary use, usually point of the compass; in absol. use chiefly Naut.)

  • I’d bet a Way With Words t-shirt or one of your books that Tom’s word is “pelagic”. Compasses used on the water are commonly referred to as pelagic compasses to identify them as meant for boats or divers. Google up ‘pelagic compass’ and you’ll come up with lots of catalogs selling ‘pelagic compasses’. I own a forty year-old sailboat that was billed as being delivered with a genuine ‘pelagic compass’.
    Please call Tom with this one and I’ll bet he lights up.
    Love the show.

  • Well, Jerry, he said “pelagic” wasn’t it. We tried it on him when you suggested it in April, though I’m not sure that part of the interview made it on the air.

  • I just listened (quietly, at work)to the “peristyle” podcast, and it led me to some web surfing. Tom felt that this was close, but not quite right. One item I found in my surfing was the Merriam Websters online definition of the word. This, in turn, gave the Greek root as “peristylon.” Now, this is clearly close. Is it close enough???

  • Here are some of the words we have tried on Tom:

    boxing the compass
    cardinal points
    compass rose
    Flinders bar
    principal points
    pyxis nautica
    rose of winds
    zodiac points

  • Points on a compass was known as “Boxing the Compass”. All who took the helm were required to know them. See classic sailing book by Chapman which shows an olde compass with the tiny divisions named.
    Typically they are black & white stars seen on old, large binnacles.
    “Two points off the starboard bow captain”

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