studied your radio emergency procedures in the Sea Scout Manual, did you every wonder where those
funny-sounding words MAYDAY, PAN, and SECURITY came from?
I’ll bet you figured they came from the French language, as the Manual
told you to pronounce them as “mayday”, “pahn”, and “say-curitay”.
I’ll bet you didn’t know what those French words actually meant.
I didn’t. Well
here’s the answer:
The distress call by radio telephone is the
two words "MAY DAY." This corresponds to the French pronunciation
for "m'aider", which means "help me." On voice,
the "XXX" (urgent) equivalent is the word "PAN." This
corresponds to the French pronunciation for "panne", which means
"mishap" or "accident." The "TTT"
(safety) equivalent is "SECURITY." This corresponds to the
French pronunciation for "sécurité", which means
"safety." The calling frequency for voice was 2182 kilohertz.
1. Neal McEwen, "'SOS,' 'CQD' and the
History of Maritime Distress Calls", The Telegraph Office Magazine,
Volume II, Issue 1 (1999). <http://fohnix.metronet.com/~nmcewen/arc_current.html>
[24 January 2003].
If I have to send an emergency radio message in the future, knowing the meaning of the French words makes it finally all become
the water, if I’m in real danger (i.e. distress, where loss of life,
serious illness or injury, or loss of the vessel is possible), I need
someone to help me, so I use MAYDAY (m’aider = “help me”).
the situation is less serious, more of a mishap or accident (i.e. urgent
– safety of the vessel or person is in jeopardy, help is needed, but
loss of life or property is not likely), I use PAN (panne = “accident
to report a hazard to navigation, buoy off station, extreme weather,
large ship in narrow channel, etc., I use SECURITY (sécurité =
Here's another interesting fact: the background of the wireless signal
The Marconi Yearbook of Wireless
Telegraphy and Telephony, 1918 states, "This signal [SOS] was
adopted simply on account of its easy radiation and its unmistakable
character. There is no special signification in the letter themselves, and
it is entirely incorrect to put full stops between them [the letters]."
All the popular interpretations of "SOS," "Save or
Ship," "Save Our Souls," or "Send Out Succour" are
simply not valid. Stations hearing this distress call were to immediately
cease handling traffic until the emergency was over and were likewise bound
to answer the distress signal.
in McEwen. <http://fohnix.metronet.com/~nmcewen/arc_current.html>
[24 January 2003].
If you’d like to know more about the history of maritime distress
calls, check out Neal McEwen's article on SOS,' 'CQD' and the
History of Maritime Distress Calls. It is a
short but fascinating article.
For what it's worth, McEwen's article says MAY DAY is two words.
The Sea Scout Manual on pages 200-201 shows it as one word,
George Hay Kain, III
Skipper, SSS YORKSHIRE - Sea
Scout Ship 25, York, PA
P.O. Box 14
Emigsville, PA 17318