Up in the air, Junior Birdmen.
Dear Word Detective: Where did the word “cockpit” come from? Was there a petcock or cocktail or peacock involved in the naming for the pilot’s area of an airplane? Secondly, how about “pilot”? — David Blanton.
Petcocks and cocktails and peacocks in the cockpit, oh my! Makes me wish I’d learned to fly. Then again, given my eyesight, we’re all glad I didn’t. In fact, I realized the other day that I haven’t been on an airplane in more than fifteen years. I’ll bet it’s much more fun than it used to be, right?
“Cockpit” in the sense of “area of an aircraft where the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, et al., sit” is just about as old as powered flight itself, first appearing in print around 1914. But the word “cockpit” itself is much older, dating back the the late 16th century, and the “sport” which is the source of “cockpit” is probably much, much older. A “cockpit” in the original literal sense is a pit dug in the ground where cockfights are held, “cockfights” being staged battles between roosters, often outfitted with metal spurs, on which bets are placed. Although cockfighting is illegal in most countries today, it is still depressingly popular around the world.
By the early 1700s, “cockpit” was being used in a figurative sense for any arena of battle or conflict, especially if enclosed, or an area of intense and important activity. It was this “place where the important things are done” sense (and not, thank heavens, the “fighting chickens” meaning) that led “cockpit” to be applied to the pilot’s compartment in an aircraft and, by extension, the “control position” in a racing car, sailboat or similar conveyance.
“Pilot” is also a very old word, and originally meant “one who steers a ship,” a sense expanded in the 20th century to include someone who flies an airplane. English adopted “pilot” from French, but ultimately the word derives from the Greek “pedon,” meaning “steering oar” or “blade of a oar.” Interestingly, the root of that “pedon” is the Indo-European root “ped,” meaning “foot,” also the source of our English “pedal” and “pedestrian,” among other words.
Since you mentioned those other words, we may as well illuminate them a bit. A “petcock” is not a tame chicken (chickens being among nature’s most savage beasts, of course), but rather a small faucet or spigot, usually found on a boiler or similar apparatus, where it is used to drain or relieve pressure. The “pet” part probably comes from an old sense of “pet” meaning “small” (still found in “petty”), and the “cock” part most likely draws a comparison of the faucet handle to the comb of a rooster.
“Peacocks” are not especially fond of peas. Their name is simply a modified form of the Latin name for the bird, “pavo” plus “cock” in the general sense of “male bird.”
As for “cocktail,” fuhgeddaboudit. Etymologists have been arguing about this word since it first appeared in print in 1806. Search the internet for five minutes and you’ll find a dozen theories about the origins of “cocktail,” most of them absurd, some of them vaguely plausible, but not one of them possessing enough evidence on its side to settle the argument. “Cocktail” is the Loch Ness Monster of lexicography, and I, for one, am happy to let this Nessie sleep with the fishes.