The meaning and origin of “Mayday,” the emergency distress signal
“Mayday” is the radio signal which the captains of airplanes falling from the sky or ships experiencing torrential rain at the sea send out in movies. I am sure you have seen those scenes where they frantically exclaim “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” at least once. So then, how has this “May Day” come to be used as a distress call?
1. Two meanings of Mayday
May Day has two meanings. When written as “May Day” it means the first day in May, which the Labor Day. This is the day on which the workers around the world forge the spirit of alliance in order to improve employment conditions and raise their positions. On this day, the workers in each country take a day off from work, have assemblies and conduct demonstrations to exhibit their coalition and unity.
Another form of this term, written as one word, “Mayday” means a distress call.
Mayday is a radio distress signal used internationally. So since when did Mayday come to be used internationally and what does it mean?
2. Morse code SOS as distress call until 1920’s
Until the early 1920’s, “SOS” was used for distress calls, which was made using the Morse Code. The Morse Code are transmission symbols which express the English Alphabet using permutations of lines and dots of electrical current, invented by Morse. Since SOS was the word that could be made simply using the Morse Code, it became the distress call in cases of emergency.
While SOS is the representative distress signal used in radio transmissions, in radio voice telecommunications, it is “Mayday.” Just as SOS is a term that was created after seeking the simplest meaningless permutation of the Morse Code, so is Mayday entirely unrelated to Labor Day, created for a very simple reason.
3. Mayday from French word
However, when it became possible to transmit voices with the advancement in telecommunication technology, a need arose for a new distress signal in international aviation. And it was born from the suggestion in 1923 by Frederick Mockford, the aviation radio operator at Croydon Airport, England. Mockford said that there is a need for distress signal which the airplanes could use internationally.
In French, “Viens m’aider” means “help me.” “M’aider” is pronounced in the way similar to “Mayday” in English. This French word sufficiently imparts the emergency of a situation while also not very difficult to pronounce. It was a time when most of the air traffic was between Croydon Airport in England and Bourget Airport in France, and as compared to now, the French language was very much in wide use internationally.
Aviation-related terms were no exception, with both English and French being used frequently. Therefore, it was decided that Mayday, which is similar in pronunciation to the French word “m’aider” from “Viens m’aider” would be used for emergency distress signal that could be used by both the French and English speakers.
The Croydon Airport adopted Mockford’s suggestion, and upon agreement with its French counterpart, “Mayday” came to be used as the distress call. When this use became more wide-spread, it became accepted as an official term at the 1927 international radio communication conference, and since then, “Mayday” became established as international distress signal.
4. The other emergency signals: Pan Pan, flags, red chloride rocket
Similarly, under circumstances less emergent than Mayday situations, but which involve malfunction or emergency medical situation, the distress call of “Pan-Pan” is used. This term was also taken from a French word “Panne” which means malfunction or out of order.
Aside from “Mayday,” there are 12 other distress signals for vessels, including firing, Morse Code, flags and red chloride rocket. However, the fastest and most accurate would be the radio transmission of “Mayday.”
So today we have learned about the meaning and origin of “Mayday,” the emergency distress signal.
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