The aim of this blog is to serve as a meeting point to those who study or have studied English philology and, more broadly, to all those who love literature and language.

1 May 2009


I could have chosen May Day traditions and celebrations on this first day of May as the topic for a first post in this new month, but I will write about the origins of its homophone, the distress expression ‘mayday’, and other similar signals, instead.

According to the Wikipedia entry on this term, “Mayday is an emergency code word used internationally as a distress signal in voice procedure radio communications. It derives from the French venez m'aider, meaning 'come help me'. It is used to signal a life-threatening emergency by many groups, such as police forces, pilots, firefighters, and transportation organizations. The call is always given three times in a row ("Mayday Mayday Mayday") to prevent mistaking it for some similar-sounding phrase under noisy conditions, and to distinguish an actual Mayday call from a message about a Mayday call.”

But mayday is not the only alert signal of that kind. In fact, that is the one which indicates closer danger and biggest urgency. Pan-pan (from the French: panne - a breakdown) is used for urgent situations of a lower order , such as a mechanical breakdown. Finally, Securite (from French sécurité — safety) introduces an important safety information, such as navigational warnings or the approaching of meteorological adverse conditions.

These three signals have Morse equivalents in SOS (• • • — — — • • •), XXX (— —••— — — —••— — — —••— — ) TTT ( — — —)

Regarding SOS, I read that its association with phrases such as "Save Our Souls" were developed after the signal, most likely as a means to help remember the correct letters (something known as a backronym).

1 comment:

  1. brigante19@hotmail.com2 May 2009 at 18:09

    Never heard about backronyms, but they are fun! I like this one: TWAIN (Technology Without Any Interesting Name).