I work in tech, and you hear a lot about “alpha builds” and “beta testing” and “pilot programs” – and the first two make perfect sense. Alpha is first, beta is second. It’s “pilot” that caught my attention the other day. Why DO we call it a pilot? TV shows have “pilot” episodes. We have “pilot” groups in implementations. Or “pilot programs” when testing new theories.
So I turned to my trusty Google and found…. well, not a lot really. I was sorely disappointed with the curiosity of Quora. I was utterly let down by Wikipedia. I turned to Dictionary.com and read through definitions (this is not 100% of the definitions, just 1 from each category):
- (n) a person duly qualified to steer ships into or out of a harbor or through certain difficult waters.
- (v) to lead, guide, or conduct, as through unknown places, intricate affairs, etc.
- (adj) serving as an experimental or trial undertaking prior to full-scale operation or use: a pilot project.
Interesting… but still not an explanation of how it got used beyond boats. Etymology Online wasn’t entirely useful either.
Sense extended 1848 to “one who controls a balloon,” and 1907 to “one who flies an airplane.” As an adjective, 1788 as “pertaining to a pilot;” from 1928 as “serving as a prototype.” Thus the noun pilotmeaning “pilot episode” (etc.), attested from 1962.
So…. it just happened?? I don’t believe that, but I DO accept that we can’t completely track the lingual adjustment. So I thought up some of my own theories. Here’s the one I like the best.
Post WWII there was such a preponderance of military men in media – movies, tv, books, etc. that “pilot” was more about “steering” a series or idea than it was about “boat.” And “pilot” for planes was still new enough the word had some…. flexibility in its use at that time.