Origins of the Word Cockpit


An intriguing question that I'm sure all of us interested in aviation must have wondered about sometime in our lives. And although we've conducted some pretty thorough research using a variety of word origin tools, we're still not entirely sure what the answer is.

The first known reference to the term "cockpit" comes from the rather barbaric sport of cockfighting and refers to the pit in which the fights occurred. Shortly therafter, the word naturally attained a connotation as being related to any scene of grisly combat, such as European battlefields. By the end of the 16th Century, the term was being used to describe sunken pits or cramped, confined spaces. In particular, the word cockpit was used to describe the pit around the stage in a theater containing the lowest level of seats, as illustrated by this passage from William Shakespeare's "Henry V."

In so doing, Shakespeare may have been trying to draw an analogy between the spectacle of a cockfight or battle and that of a theatrical performance. An entire London theater even became known as The Cockpit in 1635, as did the English Trasury and Privy Council government buildings that were built on the same ground later in the 17th Century.

However, the more direct linkage to your question comes from the use of the term cockpit to refer to a compartment belowdecks on a British naval vessel beginning around 1700. The often cramped and confined compartment was placed below the waterline and served as quarters for junior officers as well as for treating the wounded during battle. Although the purpose of this compartment evolved over time, its name did not. Even today, a room on the lower deck of a yacht or motor boat where the crew quarters are located is often called a cockpit. In addition, the rudder control space from which a vessel is steered is sometimes called a cockpit since a watchman in the highest position is called a cock, and a cavity in any vessel is called a pit.

This sense of the word, as an often confined space used for control purposes, was first applied to an aircraft around 1914 by pilots during World War I. In keeping with this same meaning, the tightly confined control space of a racing automobile also became known as a cockpit by about 1935.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 3 February 2002


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