Learn English – the etymology of the term “Cockpit”


I have always been intrigued by the word cockpit and have wondered where it originated.

I have heard that it originated in the times of cock fights; is this true? If it is, how did the word evolve from having its original cockfighting meaning to being the name for the portion of an airplane or vehicle where the pilot and copilot sit?

Best Answer

You're correct, it was originally a pit where cockerels fought.

The Oxford English Dictionary says:

a. A pit or enclosed area in which game-cocks are set to fight for sport; a place constructed for cock-fighting.

The first example is from 1587 in Thomas Churchyard's The worthines of Wales:

The Mountaynes stands..In roundnesse such, as it a Cockpit were.

So the author is comparing the towering Welsh mountains to a cockpit. This non-direct use suggests the term must have been in common use for its analogous use to be understood here.

From this barbaric sport, the term was later applied to a place where a contest is fought (1612); to a theatre (1616; appropriately the first-known example is by playwright William Shakespeare); to a part of a warship where the junior officers quarters were, and where wounded were cared for during battle; and finally, more familiarly, to aeronautics (1914) and motor racing (1935).