August 1, 2006
By Barry Schiff
Author Barry Schiff has been contributing to AOPA Pilot since June 1963.
As the creator and author of "Test Pilot," the quiz that has appeared in AOPA Pilot every month since it debuted in March 1994, I frequently receive requests from readers to develop questions that detail the origins of various aeronautical terms. A recent e-mail, for example, inquired about the origin of the word cockpit.
The most popular explanation is that a cockpit was the pit in which fighting cocks battled. It came to mean any small place where battles were waged, as in the adage, "Belgium is the cockpit of Europe." By analogy, World War I pilots in Europe referred to their cramped quarters as cockpits.
There is another, less accepted explanation. The coxswain is the steersman of a small boat, and some claim that an airplane's cockpit was so named because the pilot, a coxswain of sorts, sat in a small pit.
I did not include this in a recent quiz because I had explained the derivation of cockpit several years ago and did not want to repeat the question. My goal has been to keep "Test Pilot" as fresh, interesting, and original as possible. Many readers, however, never saw (or they forgot) the original explanation. It would be a shame for them to miss out on such wonderful information about our colorful heritage. For these readers and as a possible refresher for others, please allow this rerun of some of the most interesting derivations.
Why are control sticks (and certain computer controls) called joysticks? The control stick was developed by a man whose last name was Joyce. It was originally called a Joyce stick, which became foreshortened with use to joystick.
Many of our terms originated in France, which has a rich aviation history and contributed more to aeronautical lore than many Americans realize (see " The Name Game," December 2002 Pilot). The empennage, for example, is the tail section of an airplane. This French word refers to the feathers of an arrow. So the tail surfaces on an airplane really are tail feathers. Fuselage comes from the French word fuselé, which means "spindle shaped." Aileron is French for "small wing," a reasonable description of this surface. And, of course, the international radio call for help, Mayday, is the Anglicized spelling and pronunciation of m'aidez, which is French for "help me."
Wonder why we refer to aircraft storage structures as hangars? Hangar is a French word and means "outhouse or shed." And is there a pilot alive who has never heard of Monsieur Henri Pitot, inventor of the thing that probes the relative wind?
Attempting to determine the reason for calling a field "socked in" during inclement weather drove me nuts, but the French bailed me out again. "Socked in" was originally "sock in" and was first used in early French aviation. During bad weather, the windsock was removed from its mast and taken indoors. Also, the colloquial and French meaning of sock was "close in or conceal."
Another French word is nacelle, which means "small boat." It refers aeronautically to any separate and streamlined enclosure on an airplane used to shelter something (such as a wing-mounted engine on a multiengine airplane). Chandelle is taken from monter en chandelle, which means to climb on or around a candle, and is similar to the American idiom "turn on a dime."
The British also have made contributions. Ever wonder why landing a landplane in water is called ditching? This is a Royal Air Force term that means landing in the English Channel, or in the "ditch" separating England from Europe.
Other British terms never seemed to catch on in the United States. These include bat and ball (turn-and-bank indicator), spats (wheelpants), pole (control stick), and circuits and bumps (touch-and-go landings).
Many terms, of course, originated here. Do you know why a landing made following an engine failure is called a "dead-stick landing"? The expression originated before World War I and refers to the propeller, which — when failing to produce thrust — has no more utility than a stick.
If you are young, you might not know why a life vest is often called a "Mae West." When inflated, the vests reminded early pilots of the buxom and bawdy Hollywood actress.
When a pilot has a fatal accident, it is said that he "bought the farm." When early pilots made dead-stick landings on farms, they frequently were required to pay for damaged crops. Such a pilot was said to have "bought" part of the farm. Pilots who don't survive are said to have bought the whole farm.
Why are position lights called "navigation lights"? Old-timers used to tell student pilots that they could avoid getting lost at night by keeping the airplane between the position light on each wing tip.
Good questions for "Test Pilot" are difficult to harvest; it is tough to find interesting material about which questions have not already been asked. As a result, dear reader, I am asking (begging!) you to submit material that you believe could be the basis for suitable questions and answers for our monthly quiz. The material does not have to deal only with the origination of words and expressions. Anything aeronautical will do. My only requirement is that the answers be fascinating, educational, or entertaining, which is English for fascinantes, éducatives, and amusantes.
Visit the author's Web site.
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