Mayday – international distress signal

Mayday is an international distress signal used by ships and aircraft in emergencies. This is a voice call used in radio communications. In some countries Mayday may also be used by local organizations such as police and firefighting forces.

The mayday call is made in life-threatening situations, and is usually said three times in a row: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Why Mayday?

The term mayday actually represents the pronunciation of the French m’aider (from venez m’aider meaning “come and help me”). It was created at Croydon, England around 1923 in the early days of aviation. At that time much of the air traffic was between Croydon Airport, London and Le Bourget Airport, Paris. Although the distress signal SOS [S-O-S] already existed, it was not suitable for voice communications since the sound of S is easily confused with F or X. There is no connection with the May Day holiday.

New Air Distress Signal: Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter “S” by telephone [or radio], the international distress signal “S.O.S.” will give place to the words “May-day”, the phonetic equivalent of “M’aidez”, the French for “Help me.”

The Times 2 February 1923

Example sentences

  • The pilot immediately sent out a Mayday.
  • The ship’s captain was screaming “Mayday!” over the radio.
  • The coast guard received the mayday call at 9.34pm.
  • The crew sent out a Mayday alert before abandoning ship.
  • Luckily another ship picked up our mayday call.

distress (noun): state of ship or aircraft in danger and needing help
life-threatening (adjective): potentially fatal; likely to cause death
SOS (noun): an international morse code signal of extreme distress, used especially by ships at sea. First used in the 1890s.

Further reading

By Josef Essberger for EnglishClub November 2020
Josef started teaching English as a foreign language in 1991 and founded EnglishClub for learners and teachers in 1997.


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