“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” Whenever a pilot or ship captain says it, you know trouble is near. But what does mayday mean, and why do we say it?
What Does Mayday Mean?
The word “mayday”, specifically when shouted three times in a row, is a term you would never want to hear in person. Not to be confused with May Day, the first day of May, mayday is an international distress signal used by boats and planes to signal extreme danger. The severity of this call is so extraordinary that if a false one is made, either as a prank or on accident, the fine can reach $250,000 and one can serve up to six years in prison.
Why Do We Say Mayday?
The term allegedly came from Frederick Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London in 1923. He was asked to produce a phrase that could be understood clearly and convey a sense of urgency. Since the air traffic over London consisted mostly of French and British passengers, he decided to use “mayday” because it sounded a lot like the French word m’aider meaning “help me.” This phrase could be easily said by English-speakers, and would be nearly impossible to misinterpret.
The distress signal caught on and was made an official term in 1948. While signals like SOS worked great for systems that convey morse code, mayday came to be the preferred way to signal distress over radio. This was due to the sound of the ‘S’ sometimes being misunderstood on radio frequencies.
How to Signal Distress
Mayday distress calls can be broadcast on any radio frequency, but there are also specific channels in place that are monitored for emergency messages. When making the call, you must say “mayday” three times, followed by all relevant information. This includes things like who you are, where you are, what’s happening on board, what type of help you need, the condition of the people on board, what your boat looks like, and how often you’ll be checking on the channel.
Mayday is still a popular signal used today. It is used alongside other signals for less severe situations, like “pan-pan,” from the french word panne meaning “breakdown.” Pan-pan is used when there is a mechanical issue with a craft that needs immediate attention.
Today, these signals continue to be of tremendous importance, and the clarity of these phrases has saved thousands of lives since their inception.
It should be noted, however, that shouting “mayday” in public will likely not yield positive results.