Where Exactly Did the Term “Cockpit” Come From?

Sometimes, you have a hyperaware situation where despite your knowledge in something, you realize upon a single second of thought, that you don’t actually know what you thought you knew. I’m sure many people understand the definition of the word cockpit. Simply being that a compartment for the pilot which contains controls, instrument panel, etc. However, why is it called cockpit? Aviation has many technical phrases when defining something, yet regardless of slang, it’s not compartment, cabin, or quarters, but simply cockpit. Where did this eccentric phrase come from, and how did it become common today?

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There are a few popular theories as to where the phrase itself came from, however, it’s good to begin with a history lesson to understand the context of how the phrase evolved over time. For starters, the earliest documentation of the phrase begins even before aircraft existed all the way back in the 1580s, where it first appeared in print. It would use to describe the arena used for cockfights (aka, birds) then in 1635, there was a theater in London that was specifically called “The Cockpit”. It was then taken down to become King Charles I’s cabinet, but people continued to call it “the cockpit” since the original building was a site for bird fighting. This leads to suggest that cockpit evolves from a synonym for “control center”, where this was observed by Robert Barnhart, in the book “Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology”.

Alternatively, in the 1700s, soldiers use the word “cockpit” to describe a site of gruesome combat, especially for small enclosed areas. This led to the adoption of pilots in World War I, who also applied it to the small enclosed quarters to keep fighter planes. For a more military history of the word, we also have in the 18th century, using the term cockpit to describe the surgeon station for wounded sailors who were taken there during combat.

Interesting enough, there is also a connection that has nothing to do with deadly bird combat. It originates from the word coxswain, which was used to describe “the person in charge of a small vessel”. It comes from “cock”, which was an old English term for a small boat, and “swain” which is a servant. So simply put, a cockswain is a boat servant. Over time, the title led to the steering compartment of smaller boats where the cockswain sat, then the area became known as the cockpit. Of course, as other history fans may know, early aviation borrowed a lot of other terms from watercraft, which many believe to be the main source of the word cockpit as it’s used today. There is even a book published in 1909 which may support this, called “Vehicles of the Air” by Victor Lougheed, which states “So far, most of such seats have been of the most elementary construction, as is suggested in the illustrations throughout these pages. Lately, however, some of the more advanced craft are appearing with comfortable arrangements for seating the operator, as is particularly evidenced in the boat-like cockpits provided in the Bleriot, Antoinette, and R.E.P. machines.”


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By the time 1915 rolled around, the term cockpit has become commonplace amongst many kinds of literature, which makes sense considering that most pilots were seated on open wings or chairs lashed onto the vehicle prior to “pits” even being integrated into aircraft. However, at the end of it all, history continues even in the present day. For instance, in late May, the FAA has begun making changes to terminology, such as changing “student” to “learner” and of course, “Cockpit” in favor of “Flight Deck”. The FAA is making a push to reflect ongoing trends in higher education, and the source of these changes come from a four-page memo called “What’s New and Upcoming in Airman Testing” within the new release of the “Aviation Instructor’s Handbook”. Whether this change will be made or not is yet to be seen, as it has caused some traction within the community.

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