Today’s word is the epitome of cool. Just saying it immediately conjures up images of supercars, massive airliners, and fighter jets, and, from seemingly nowhere, most of us begin to hear the song Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins. Before getting too deep into a Top Gun fantasy, what about that special place where all of the magic happens? There’s no doubting that cockpits are fascinating and elaborate places, but there’s a reason why the front of a plane is called the cockpit and not just the “pilot area”, so strap yourself in, break out that pair of mirrored aviators, and read on.
Considering how we use the term, it may be surprising to learn that its origin is exactly as the words indicate. Coming from the realm of cockfighting, our word was initially the name of the recessed area where the gamecocks fight, coming from the combination of the term cock, meaning ‘a male fowl or rooster’, and pit, meaning ‘a hole, well or cavity’. The first use in English comes from the writing of Thomas Churchyard, who, in his 1587 work or prose and verse, The Worthiness of Wales, comparatively writes that: “The Mountains stands..In roundness such, as it a Cockpit were.”
Given that what happened in the cockpit was a spectacle, it should come as no surprise that the term was soon used figuratively as a place where a contest is fought. As part of one of his Lenten sermons in 1612, The Gallant’s Burden, Thomas Adams states: “Behold France made a Cock-pit for massacres, by the uncivil civil wars thereof.” Perhaps in a different form of spectacle, written around 4 years later regarding the venue (a theatre), the prologue of Shakespeare’s Henry V posits: “Can this Cock-Pit hold The vast fields of France? Or may we cram Within this Wooden O, the very Casks That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?” (Interestingly, both involve France.)
Cockpit began to morph into our usage based on its understanding as being the hub of activity. This first use was based on warships, specifically the man-of-war. Due to the level of activity, the after part of the orlop deck, which is where the wounded were cared for, the hold was accessed, as well as where certain ship offices and midshipmen’s quarters were found, soon became known as the cockpit, as can be seen in the 1706 edition of Edward Phillips’ English dictionary, The New World of Words, which states: “Cockpit, in a man of war, is a Place on the lower Floor, or Deck.”
Naturally, when we entered the age of aviation, it was only reasonable that the hub of information and activity aboard an airship would retain the name of the similar area on the warship – the first known example of this comes from the Reports and Memoranda (No. 112) of the UK Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, noting: “There are several speed indicators..in which the pressure of the air in the cockpit is allowed to act on one side of the recording diagram.”
Moreover, as cars became more mainstream and moved into the realm of performance vehicles, it wasn’t long before our term was being applied to the driver in a racing car: George E. T. Eyston and Barry Lyndon’s 1935 book, Motor Racing and Record Breaking, makes the first mention of how: “Smoke poured from Nuvolari’s cockpit, and he climbed from his seat.”
So, essentially, that’s F1 racing, supercars, airplanes, warships, Shakespeare, sermons, and cockfighting….not bad for a single word.