How many different ways can you say Mayday?
May 1 is May Day. For centuries, May Day has been celebrated as a return to spring. Historically, it’s a happy day of celebration. And today, May first is Labor Day in most countries.
So when someone is in trouble and needs help, why do we repeat “Mayday” three times?
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!”
First, note how “Mayday” is one word. It means “help.” However when “May Day” is a two word phrase, it describes the first day of the month.
The two sound alike, but they’re different things. That makes them homophones.
Second, the English word “mayday” is a homophone for the French phrase “m'aider.”” And “m’aider” means “help me."
The “Mayday” phrase came about in the 1920’s, when communicating by voice over radio was new. When plane and boat pilots requested help on this new communication tool, they needed to be clear and unambiguous.
As a word, English speakers use the word “help” for many non-urgent situations. We use the word “help” so frequently, it can sometimes be hard to determine if it’s an urgent request or not.
For example, you might say: “Help me build a tower with these blocks” or “help me pick up my toys!” We use the word “help” in many non-threatening situations. That’s why we need a special word or phrase to use only in an emergency.
When it comes to asking for help, we also need a word or phrase that’s easy to say out loud. Because pilots speak all kinds of languages, we want to use a sound that’s easy to say and recognize no matter what language you speak.
When you say “Mayday” out loud three times, it’s a bit magic. Think of it as a spell or incantation you use to summon help.
After all, you’re not likely to say “Mayday” three times in casual conversations. You say it only when it’s urgent.
Other than repeating “Mayday” three times, there are other ways plane and boat pilots can request help. Before pilots used the radio for voice, they tapped “SOS” in Morse code. It sounds like “dit-dit-dit-dah-dah-dah-dit-dit-dit” on the radio.
And without a radio, you can still flash the Morse code sequence with any other media you have available. You might wrap it with your knuckles, send smoke signals, or use your flashlight. In any language or medium, the SOS Morse code sequence is a signal for urgent help.
Another way mariners summon help is with flags. The International Code of Signals (ICS) signal for help are the ICS code flags N and C. These are the “November” and “Charlie” flags. November is the blue and white checked flag. Charlie is a horizontally stacked “Blue-White-Red-White-Blue” striped flag.
There are many other ways to ask for urgent help. But remember: only cry for help if you really need it. And as you enjoy the beauty of a May Day, we hope you have no need to request a mayday, mayday, mayday!