I would rather like to start this article screaming: Mayday!! Mayday!! Just like in the movies, but I’m not really in danger. Of course, making a fake distress call is punishable by six years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. So I’ll pass. Anyhow, you can’t tell when you will really need to make this call to save your life. So you better be prepared and learn what exactly this word means and what are its origins.

Dictionary Definition

Mayday: Noun. A special radio signal sent from a ship or an aircraft when it needs help. (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary)

Mayday: Noun. The international radiotelephone signal for help, used by ships and aircraft in distress. (Collins English Dictionary)

If you just need help with positioning, replenishing fuel, controlling a slight fire on board or so, do not use Mayday. The correct distress call for this is “Pan-pan”. Mayday only should be called if the problem you are facing in the ship or aircraft is serious. That is, it puts at risk the craft’s full structure and/or the lives of its crew and passengers. Therefore, Mayday is used rarely, thank god! According to the Collins English dictionary, Mayday is in the lower 50% of commonly used words. 

Here are three situations in which someone correctly used the word Mayday:

“On November 27, 2018, a Mayday was called when Dallas firefighters with Engine 48 got into trouble while operating at a four-alarm fire at the Cambridge Park Apartments.”

From Fire Engineering website Article: Video: Learning from a Dallas Mayday. 2019

Police say a cruise ship with engine problems has sent a mayday call off Norway’s western coast and is making plans to evacuate its 1,300 passengers and crew.”

From The Epoch Times website Article: Cruise Ship off Norway Issues Mayday, Begins Evacuations. 2019

Amazon has quietly discontinued the hugely popular Mayday feature on its Kindle Fire tablets. Launched back in 2013, Mayday was a bit like Rick and Morty‘s Meeseeks box. If a user got stuck using their tablet, they could summon one of Bezos’ minions for a face-to-face help session.”

From The Next Web website Article: Amazon has discontinued the Mayday button on its Fire tablets. 2019

S.O.S. is out of fashion!

The origin of the word Mayday goes back to the 1920s, when technological advances allowed modernizing radio communication in airplanes and boats. Instead of using Morse code, communication was implemented through voice messages, which were faster and more accurate.

At that time air traffic between France and England was increasing, and therefore more accidents were also occurring. It was then that the radio officers of the airports of these two countries encountered a significant inconvenience: The letters “S.O.S” were not well understood when they were transmitted verbally by radio; in most cases only the letter “O” was heard, or the “S” sounded like “F”. Considering the importance of immediately understanding an emergency signal it was a problem that had to be solved.

A Solution is Found

The solution was found by Frederick Stanley Mockford, in 1923. He was the senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, and knew both English and French. So he thought of a word that would be easy for pilots of both nationalities to remember: “Mayday“. The word sounds like May Day, the traditional spring holiday celebrated every May 1st by the English. At the same time it comes from the French venez m’aider, which means “come and help me”.

The word was so well received by pilots that it was quickly adopted by boat captains as well, and spread throughout Europe to become an internationally recognized radio word to signal extreme distress. 

For its part, Hollywood has made sure that all citizens know this word very well, so if one day you shout from the bathroom “Mayday! Mayday!” someone will probably understand and will come to your aid with a roll of toilet paper!

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