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Cockpit

Q From Rick Loiacono, Florida: If I don’t find out where the air-force term Cockpit came from, I’m going to go mad. What do you think?

A When you stop and think about it, the term for the pilot’s cabin on an aircraft — and other spaces such as the driver’s compartment in a racing car or a helmsman in a small yacht — is curious, isn’t it? Its origin is exotic and disquieting to modern minds.

The experts are sure that it does come, as its name might suggest, from a place where cock fights were held. The word is recorded from the latter part of the sixteenth century, during the reign of the first Elizabeth. It came about because the fighting area for cocks (one of the favourite recreations of the time, together with bull- and bear-baiting) was often thought of as a pit. It was a roughly circular enclosure with a barrier around so that the birds couldn’t escape, fitted up with rows of seats like a small theatre so that the spectators could look down on the action. The first recorded mention is in Thomas Churchard’s The Worthiness of Wales of 1587: “The mountains stand in roundness such as it a Cock pit were”. Shakespeare uses it as an allusion to the round shape and noisy crowdedness of a theatre when the Chorus in Henry V laments its inadequacy to portray tumultuous events: “Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?”

More than a century earlier, Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, had bowling alleys, tennis courts and a cock-pit built on a site opposite the royal palace of Whitehall. A block of buildings later erected on the site were taken over in the seventeenth century for government offices such as the Treasury and the Privy Council. That explains the entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary for 20 February 1659: “In the evening Simons and I to the Coffee Club, where nothing to do only I heard Mr. Harrington, and my Lord of Dorset and another Lord, talking of getting another place at the Cockpit, and they did believe it would come to something.”

A little later, the term came to be applied to the rear part of the lowest deck, the orlop, of a fighting ship (orlop is from Dutch overloop, a covering). During a battle it became the station for the ship’s surgeon and his mates because it was relatively safe and least subject to disturbance by the movements of the ship. Like all lower-deck spaces, it was confined, crowded, and badly lit. During a battle, it was also noisy, stinking and bloody. All this reminded people of a real cock-pit, hence the name. About 200 years ago, on 21 October 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson died in the cockpit of HMS Victory during the battle of Trafalgar.

The move to today’s sense came through its use for the steering pit or well of a sailing yacht, which also started to be called the cockpit in the nineteenth century. This was presumably borrowed from the older term because it was a small enclosed sunken area in which a coxswain was stationed. (The word was cockswain to start with, he being the swain, or serving man, who was in charge of a cock, a type of ship’s boat.) From here, it moved in the early twentieth century to the steering area of an aircraft, and later still to other related senses.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Oct. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 22 October 2005.