MAYDAY

Updated 24 January 2003 14:17

When you 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]

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 clear: 

  1. On 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”). 
  2. If 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 or mishap”). 
  3. Finally, to report a hazard to navigation, buoy off station, extreme weather, large ship in narrow channel, etc., I use SECURITY (sécurité = “safety”).

Here's another interesting fact: the background of the wireless signal SOS:

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.[2]

2.  Quoted 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, MAYDAY.

/s/ Skipper
 
George Hay Kain, III
Skipper, SSS YORKSHIRE - Sea Scout Ship 25, York, PA
skipper@ship25bsa.org
 
P.O. Box 14
Emigsville, PA 17318

 
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