Saturday, November 16, 2013


Mike Ryan and  Charles Pasternak in Henry V
Over the last few months, starting with the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Henry V in the festival glen, I have been having quite a run of seeing what some call "the Henriad". Not only did Santa Cruz's production complete a cycle of all three of the Henry plays with this performance being the third year Prince Hal returned to the stage (and with the same actor playing the lead in all three, which was terrific), I then got to see PBS do the cycle (which included Richard II) this fall under what I think was the very apt overarching title, The Hollow Crown.

It's an odd thing to say, but I actually had a bit harder time following the filmed version than the live version, when I would have thought it might be the opposite. I don't know if it's the same for everyone, but I think it has something to do with the way a live performance forces you to struggle along, whereas television, though you may have more chance to hear the lines crisply, let's you, well, check in and out whenever you  like.

So I decided to pick up my copy of Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber and read her comments on all of the plays. I've had the book for some years, and I find it a highly readable account of each play so it's a fun thing to do after a performance. (Also, I wanted to know why Henry decided to kill the French prisoners at Agincourt--she didn't tell me, but the short answer is, because the real Henry did.)

Anyway, it was while reading the  notes on Henry V that I came across the famous prologue in which the speaker questions the ability of  a mere theater to represent the battlefield.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

As I've mentioned here before quite recently, I can be a bit slow on the uptake. That's probably why, although I have heard the modern word 'cockpit' used thousands of times, it never really occurred to me to think about why it was called that. And really, it wasn't till seeing the word written out in the play that I thought 'hmm, cockpit--there's got to be some kind of connection'. Now obviously, the cockpit in the play is referring to the Elizabethan era activity of cock fighting, and not to space on a fighter jet where the pilot sits. So what's the connecting link?


Well. The answer is fairly consistent, though there are a few variations. Yes, it does apparently go back to that whole cockfighting arena. The first slippage across the line to a new meaning seems to have been when it became the designation of the rear area of the lowest deck, or orlop, of a fighting ship. This area was often used as an operating theatre in times of crisis because it was the most stable and the least disturbed by the ship's movement. But as World Wide Words points out, surgery tended to make  the space feel cramped, noisy and bloody. I'm sure a few sailors had seen a cockfight or two in their day, and so the association was made.

But there does seem to be another factor in all this, which is that the cockpit was also the station of the coxswain. The coxswain is the person in charge of the ship's boat. Also he's that guy who in races yells "Row, row, row". (For what a coxswain in a race actually does, click here.)  A ship's boat is also called a cock, and the swain is its servant. But it is not named after fighting roosters, it comes from the Old French coque, which is something more like a canoe. So, as you can see, the waters are muddied slightly, if not bloodied.

And muddied a bit more by an alternate variant I read at by the idea that it was the area which housed the midshipmen, who likely were strutting around in a roosterish way. (I do want to note for the record that Blogger just tried to change roosterish to 'Roosterfish' Roosterfish? To be explored later...

Apparently the idea of cramped quarters carried over more than the idea of blood and quarrel did. The Online Etymology dictionary delineates the progression:

1580s: pit for fighting cocks
1706: midshipmen's quarters below deck
1914: pilot's area on plane
1930: the driver's area of a racing car

As you might imagine the word cockpit elicited a video from Hot For Words. It's been too long, Marina Orlova. Well, not really, but there are lots of ways of learning things in this world...



  1. Oh, my! I had not met Marina in your Confessions before.

  2. Yes, she's made an appearance or two before, though as I am too lazy label these posts usually, I don't think I could find my original discovery. Apparently she is a real Russian philologist in addition to being, well, so much else.

  3. Lovely to see Shakespeare Santa Cruz here! (I had forgotten about the "cockpit" in it, but had recently been reminded of the "wooden O.") Thanks for the infO!

  4. Yes, Mike Ryan is an old stalwart of the company, so I'm glad to be able to include his picture.