I don't understand the imagery in the quote below that I bolded:

The centerpiece of his research is the etymology or origin of the word “catholic.” While we do commonly use it to mean “universal,” Ong points out that the Latin or Roman Church (as distinct from the Orthodox or Eastern Church) had a word for universal in Latin — universalis. Ong asked:

If “universal” is the adequate meaning of “catholic,” why did the Latin church, which in its vernacular language had the word universalis, not use this word but rather borrowed from Greek the term katholikos instead, speaking of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church (to put it into English) instead of the “one, holy, universal and apostolic church”?

Great question!

Ong explains that it has a theological and practical significance. The origin of “universal” in Latin likely comes from the two root-words unum (meaning “one”) and vertere (meaning “turn”). The image it evokes is something like an architect’s compass, which is used to make a circle around “one” central point.

Etymonline avers:

Latin universum "all things, everybody, all people, the whole world," noun use of neuter of adjective universus "all together, all in one, whole, entire, relating to all,"
literally "turned into one," from unus "one" (from PIE root *oi-no- "one, unique") + versus,
past participle of vertere "to turn, turn back, be turned; convert, transform, translate; be changed"
(from PIE root *wer- (2) "to turn, bend").

But what exactly does a pair of compasses 'turn around one central point'? It feels humdrum to turn an area of previously blank space on a paper around one central point?

  • Sorry, I can't understand the structure of your question. In particular, I'm confused by the last two sentences of your post. Are you asking about the meaning of "universum" or that of "compass"? The compass imagery is only used as an explanatory analogy by the author; if it confuses you, you can ignore it. There is no literal connection between the etymology of "universum" and drawing circles on paper with a compass.
    – Asteroides
    Aug 6, 2019 at 8:34
  • @sumelic Sorry for confusion. I'm asking merely about "universeum".
    – user37
    Aug 6, 2019 at 8:35
  • @sumelic 'The compass analogy is only used as a piece of imagery by the author; if it confuses you, you can ignore it.' I could, but I fancy understanding it please.
    – user37
    Aug 6, 2019 at 8:35
  • 2
    Which of the following would you say is closer to your question? 1) How did universum develop from unum (meaning “one”) and vertere (meaning “turn”)? 2) Is it correct that the meaning of universalis evokes imagery of a circular area centered on a single point? 3) How is the analogy of a compass used by this author related to the meaning of universum and universalis?
    – Asteroides
    Aug 6, 2019 at 8:40

2 Answers 2


First, let me make sure that there is no confusion of terminology. When they write "an architect’s compass", they do not mean this:

A compass

Instead, the mean this:

Another compass

That is, here "compass" means a tool for drawing circles, not one for finding directions.

The image it evokes is something like an architect’s compass, which is used to make a circle around “one” central point.

It does not evoke that image in me. The image I get is separate entities being converted into a single large entity, much like in the US motto e pluribus unum. This image of drawing circles is a case of analysis taken too far from what is actually supported. The circle drawing thing can be a helpful mental image in describing the meaning, but one should be careful not to treat it as the meaning of universum or words derived thereof.

  • 1
    Thanks. +1. I was aware that the quote referred to the 'compass' used for drawing circles.
    – user37
    Aug 7, 2019 at 3:58
  • 3
    The author of the article is trying to make an unsubstantiated, speculative point about Latin universalis somehow being exclusionary. Appealing to a compass, of course, makes that point much easier to make. I agree with you that it is hardly the primary denotation (or even connotation) of the term.
    – brianpck
    Aug 7, 2019 at 13:28

It's important to remember that vertere doesn't only mean a literal rotation: the Romans used the word to mean "change", too, just like English-speakers talk about something "turning bad", or "turning into" something else. In fact, the Latin word is at the root of English "convert", "subvert", and "revert", all of which derive from the metaphorical meaning instead of the literal one.

So in this case, I think the metaphor of a compass makes sense (you rotate a compass to draw a circle)—but it's not particularly relevant to the meaning of universus. Instead, I would think about a large collection of disparate objects, which have been turned (versus) into a single collective entity (unus).

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