01 May 2013

May Day, Mayday and SOS

Vulcan and Maia (1585) by Bartholomäus Spranger
First off, the month of May was named for the Greek goddess Maia, who was identified with the earlier Roman goddess of fertility, Bona Dea, whose festival was held in May.

The holiday called May Day falls on the first day of May and it is a chance to celebrate spring moving into summer. Included in the outdoor celebrations is dancing around a maypole. In Wales, this festival was connected to the May Queen (Creiddylad) and the maypole and its dance is a remnant of the old festivities.

May Day is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and today is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated less officially in other countries.

But May Day is not to be confused with the distress call mayday which is used by aircraft. This term came into English in the early 1900s. It derives from the French venez m'aider, meaning "come help me".

The call is always given three times in a row ("Mayday Mayday Mayday") to distinguish an actual Mayday call from a message about a Mayday call. (Making a false distress call in the United States is a federal crime.)

The Mayday call sign originated in 1923 with Frederick Stanley Mockford who was a radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. He thought, especially because much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, that "mayday" from the French would be understood by both sides.

While ships can also  issue a mayday radio call, originally the Morse code "SOS" was the more common distress signal.

By the way, "SOS" does not mean Save Our Souls or Save Our Ship as I was once told. It was adopted in 1905 by German ships for signifying distress. The British working with Marconi radio operators wanted to keep CQD (General Call Disaster though sometimes translated as Come Quick Disaster) as a distress signal.

It was first suggested to use SOE, but the small "E" dot in Morse code can easily be lost. The suggestion was then to use SOS, which was adopted at the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention in 1906 as the official international standard for distress calls. The first time the SOS signal was used in an emergency was on June 10, 1909 when the Cunard liner "SS Slavonia" wrecked off the Azores.

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