|A book on our shelves, recommended for those into aircraft history|
The word goes back centuries and in addition to its literal meaning, the term gained a connotation of any scene of grisly combat, such as European battlefields. By the end of the 16th century, it was being used to describe sunken pits or cramped, confined spaces. In particular, the word cockpit was used to describe the pit around the stage in a theatre containing the lowest level of seats, as illustrated by this passage from William Shakespeare's Henry V.
Can this Cock-Pit hold
The vastie fields of France?
Or may we cramme
Within this Woodden O, the very Caskes
That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?
Shakespeare may have been trying to draw an analogy between the spectacle of a cockfight or battle and that of a theatrical performance. An entire London theatre even became known as The Cockpit in 1635, as did the English Treasury and Privy Council government buildings that were built on the same ground later in the 17th century.
However, the more direct linkage to the modern usage comes from its reference to a compartment below decks on a British naval vessel, beginning around 1700. The often cramped and confined compartment was placed below the waterline and served as quarters for junior officers as well as for treating the wounded during battle. Although the purpose of this compartment evolved over time, its name did not. Even today, a room on the lower deck of a yacht or motor boat where the crew quarters are located is often called a cockpit. In addition, the rudder control space from which a vessel is steered is sometimes called a cockpit since a watchman in the highest position is called a cock, and a cavity in any vessel is called a pit. This sense of the word, as an often confined space used for control purposes, was first applied to an aircraft around 1914 by pilots during WW1. In keeping with this same meaning, the tightly confined control space of a racing automobile also became known as a cockpit by about 1935.
Other European languages use the English term (the Académie Francaise may prefer Poste de Pilotage, though).