A “cockpit” can be one of several things:
— a space, often enclosed, in the forward fuselage of an airplane containing the flying controls, instrument panel, and seats for the pilot and copilot or flight crew
— a sunken, open area, generally in the after part of a small vessel, such as a yacht, providing space for the pilot, part or all of the crew, or guests
— the space, including seat and instrumentation, surrounding the driver of an automobile
— a pit or enclosed place for cockfights
— a place where a contest is fought or which has been the scene of many contests or battles
“Cockpit” seems to have been used as a nautical term in the 1600s. It referred to an area in the rear of a ship where the cockswain’s station was located, the cockswain being the pilot of a smaller boat that could be dispatched from the ship to board another ship or to bring people ashore. By the 1700s, “cockpit” had come to designate an area in the rear lower deck of a warship where the wounded were taken. The same term later came to designate the place from which a sailing vessel is steered, because it is also located in the rear, and is often in a well or “pit.”
The original meaning of “cockpit,” first noted in the 1580s, is “a pit for fighting cocks,” referring to the place where cockfights were held. 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, fitted up with rows of seats like a smaller version of the Roman amphitheater so that the spectators could look down on the action.
According to the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the London buildings where the king’s cabinet worked (Treasury and Privy Council) were called the “Cockpit” because they were built on the site of a theater called The Cockpit (torn down in 1635), which itself was built in the place where a “cockpit” for cock-fighting had once stood prior to the 1580s. Thus the word “cockpit” came to mean a control center.
“Cockpit” was adopted by pilots in World War I, to describe the cramped operating quarters of their fighter planes. Modern use of “cockpit” includes the entire crew area, or flight deck, of a large airliner, which is usually fairly spacious.
Female pilots call it the “box office.”