circumscribe

verb

cir·​cum·​scribe ˈsər-kəm-ˌskrīb How to pronounce circumscribe (audio)
circumscribed; circumscribing; circumscribes

transitive verb

1
a
: to constrict (see constrict sense 1) the range or activity of definitely and clearly
his role was carefully circumscribed
b
: to define or mark off carefully
a study of plant species in a circumscribed area
2
a
: to draw a line around
circumscribed the misspelled words
b
: to surround by or as if by a boundary
fields circumscribed by tall trees
3
: to construct or be constructed around (a geometrical figure) so as to touch as many points as possible
a circle circumscribing a square

Did you know?

To circumscribe something is to limit its size, activity, or range, but the range of influence of the Latin ancestors of circumscribe knows no bounds. Circumscribe comes via Middle English from the Latin verb circumscribere (which roughly translates as “to draw a circle around”), which in turn comes from circum-, meaning “circle,” and scribere, meaning “to write or draw.” Among the many descendants of circum- are circuit, circumference, circumnavigate, circumspect, circumstance, and circumvent. Scribere gave us such words as scribe and scribble, as well as ascribe, describe, and transcribe, among others.

Choose the Right Synonym for circumscribe

limit, restrict, circumscribe, confine mean to set bounds for.

limit implies setting a point or line (as in time, space, speed, or degree) beyond which something cannot or is not permitted to go.

visits are limited to 30 minutes

restrict suggests a narrowing or tightening or restraining within or as if within an encircling boundary.

laws intended to restrict the freedom of the press

circumscribe stresses a restriction on all sides and by clearly defined boundaries.

the work of the investigating committee was carefully circumscribed

confine suggests severe restraint and a resulting cramping, fettering, or hampering.

our choices were confined by finances

Examples of circumscribe in a Sentence

The circle is circumscribed by a square. circumscribed his enthusiasm so as not to make the losing side feel worse
Recent Examples on the Web The majority of policies are restrictive in nature: 66 percent circumscribe or ban lessons and discussions on some of society’s most sensitive topics, while 34 percent require or expand them. Clara Ence Morse, Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2024 Celebrations are circumscribed by Israeli restrictions. Sufian Taha, Washington Post, 22 Mar. 2024 And because mostly white men have decided what ends up in the Times crossword, its content is often circumscribed by the biases of those doing the constructing. Sophia Stewart, The Atlantic, 12 Mar. 2024 RuPaul told me that his social life is circumscribed, in some ways, by design. Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker, 1 Mar. 2024 But there is also the creepy idea that in a society this circumscribed and oppressive perhaps taking another’s life was one of the only truly free, independent acts that a woman could commit. Jessica Kiang, Variety, 20 Feb. 2024 And the reality cemented under successive Netanyahu governments is one of Jewish supremacy and Israeli control over a large population of Palestinians whose lives are circumscribed by Israel’s security imperatives. Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 22 Jan. 2024 Poor women’s lives are circumscribed further; women marginalized because of their race, sexuality or ability, further still. New York Times, 20 Apr. 2023 On the ground, the NUG’s reach may be limited, or at least circumscribed by the imperatives of the alphabet soup of armed factions operating in across Myanmar’s ethnic-minority borderlands. Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 7 Dec. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'circumscribe.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Middle English circumscriven, from Latin circumscribere, from circum- + scribere to write, draw — more at scribe

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of circumscribe was in the 15th century

Podcast

Dictionary Entries Near circumscribe

Cite this Entry

“Circumscribe.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/circumscribe. Accessed 20 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition

circumscribe

verb
cir·​cum·​scribe ˈsər-kəm-ˌskrīb How to pronounce circumscribe (audio)
circumscribed; circumscribing
1
a
: to limit the range or activity of definitely and clearly
b
: to define or set limits for carefully
2
a
: to draw a line around
b
: to put a boundary around
Etymology

from Latin circumscribere "to draw a line around, set limits to," from circum "around" and scribere "to write, draw" — related to scribe

More from Merriam-Webster on circumscribe

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!