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“Mayday”: Meaning, Origin, and Use

“Mayday”: Meaning, Origin, and Use

For nearly a century, Mayday has been the universal distress signal for the world’s air force, navy, army, and law enforcement. But few people know that the term actually originated in French.

Indeed, like “touché” or “c’est la vie“, Mayday is one of these expressions much more used internationally than in France. Today, we make you discover the origin, pronunciation, and meaning of Mayday.

A man asking for help from an island @French Iceberg

What does Mayday mean?

Mayday is an international term used as a radiotelephone distress call by airplane pilots, firefighters, police officers, and most transportation services. It is used to communicate a need for immediate assistance and is most often preceded by the SOS signal. Conventionally, it is used when one or more human lives are in danger.

To ensure that the emergency message is received, it should be repeated three times (“Mayday Mayday Mayday”) to avoid possible confusion with other similar terms in difficult communication conditions.

Mayday is the phonetic transcription of the French expression “venez m’aider”, a shortened version of “m’aider”. Its closest English translation would then be “come help me” or “give me a hand”.

Where does the term Mayday come from?

The exact origin of the term Mayday remains unclear since several etymologies have been attributed to it over the years. One thing is certain, the term was invented and adopted in the 1920s, and it comes from the French language.

Maday meaning
Mayday sign

The first hypothesis that one can read online concerning the origin of Mayday is probably the best known to the general public. This one is the story of a French pilot who, during a flight to England, had some technical problems that put his life in danger. He then said “venez m’aider” to the English control post, via his radio. The English operator, not speaking French, only understood the last part of the message: “Mayday”. 

According to the second hypothesis, the invention of the term Mayday is attributed to Frederick Stanley Mockford, chief radio officer at Croydon airport in London. In 1923, his superiors asked him to develop a vocal distress signal easily understandable by all pilots and air personnel, regardless of their nationality. 

The person in charge of the radio service had the idea of the term Mayday, an English transcription of the French term “m’aider”, which is itself a shortened version of “venez m’aider”, because the vast majority of the flights to Croydon were at that time flights from France.

Whichever assumption you choose to believe, the term eventually became the conventional distress signal (equivalent to SOS in Morse code) in aviation and the navy after it was enshrined in an international convention by the 1927 Washington Conference.

How is Mayday pronounced?

Although the term Mayday is derived from French, it is pronounced in English. Its phonetic pronunciation is as follows: \mɛj.dɛj\. 

For ease of use, and regardless of the language, you can pronounce the term in the same way as the two English words that gave its transcription “may” and “day”.

However, if you want to pronounce “come and help me”, you will have to use the French pronunciation. The phonetic pronunciation of the phrase is: /və.ne/ /mɛ.de/.

What is the difference between Mayday and SOS?

Contrary to what one might think, the term SOS is not an acronym for “save our souls” or any other expression. It is actually a Morse code designed to be a radio distress signal. In Morse code, the “S” takes the form of three dots, and the “O” takes the form of three dashes (. . . – – – . . . ), which makes the message particularly easy to remember, type, and be understood by everyone.

Adopted in Germany in 1905, the signal quickly spread to all countries of the world. However, Morse code has fallen somewhat into disuse nowadays. The SOS signal is now mainly used as a smoke signal by people lost in the wild.

To put it simply, Mayday is the spoken version of SOS, since SOS is not used for voice communication. The term Mayday is used in the same circumstances as SOS, but it is spoken over the radio by boat or plane pilots, whereas SOS is used in Morse code. 

Now, you know everything about the meaning of Mayday. If you want to learn more about the meaning and etymology of French terms like “plouc” and “voilà“, take a look at our section on learning French.

Translated into English by Sacha