The Grammarphobia Blog

Mayday: French to the rescue!

Q: I don’t see any mention of “Mayday,” the danger signal, on your blog. Do you know that it comes from m’aidez in French?

A: Yes, it’s true that the distress signal “Mayday” comes from French. The Oxford English Dictionary says this English interjection is derived from the French m’aidez or m’aider (“help me!”).

The OED notes that the latter form, m’aider, is “either the imperative infinitive or short for venez m’aider  ‘come and help me!’ ”

The term (capitalized in some dictionaries but not in others) was adopted in the early 20th century as an international radio distress signal, principally for use by ships and aircraft.

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall, England, says on its website that Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, originated the usage in 1923:

“He was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word ‘mayday’ from the French word m’aidez.”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage, from a February 1923 edition of the Times of London, explains why it was devised as an alternative to “SOS”:

“Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’ will give place to the words ‘May-day,’ the phonetic equivalent of ‘M’aidez,’ the French for ‘Help me.’ ”

This somewhat later example, under the heading “Aircraft and Wireless,” is from the B.B.C. Year-Book for 1930:

“In case of distress, due to engine failure over the sea, the word ‘Mayday’—equivalent to the S.O.S. used by ships—transmitted through the microphone, will summon immediately all possible help.”

 “Mayday” was used later as a noun to mean either “a distress signal consisting of the word ‘Mayday!’ ” or, more generally, “any distress call or call for help,” the OED says.

By the way, the distress signal “SOS” (it’s dotless these days), doesn’t stand for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls” or anything else. Here’s how we describe it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths:

“Wireless radio operators adopted it in the early twentieth century because the letters in Morse code (three dots, three dashes, three dots) were easy to send and unlikely to be misunderstood.”

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