Official ways of declaring distress when you can’t directly ask for “help”
At a certain point in life, we all have to learn that yelling “mommy” or “daddy” isn’t the best way to request assistance. Depending on the scenario, there are even times that shouts of “help!” won’t do the trick, no matter the language you say it in. If this sounds unfamiliar, it’s probably because you don’t spend much time driving boats, trains or planes. Each of these forms of transportation have official distress calls, some of which are more intuitive that others.
SOS: Struggling ships at sea
Ships at sea have a variety of ways to call for help. These range from firing guns at one minute intervals to orange-colored smoke signals. In 1857, the International Code of Signals was established, which designated an official distress flag with a square and a ball above it, but all of these visually oriented signs have been eclipsed by SOS. SOS was officially put into international use in 1908 for wireless telegraph communications, but it has since permeated pop-culture in a generic term for “help!”
At first glance it seems like SOS should stand for something as an initialism, but that’s not actually the case. The three letters were picked by the German government in 1905 because they’re easy to send via Morse Code (dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot.) Assumptions that the three letters stand for “save our ship” or “save our souls” have all been invented by English speakers after the fact, presumably trying to link it to some spontaneous exclamation from a sinking ship long ago.
Mayday: Planes with a problem
Every form of transportation breaks down at some point, and airplane pilots realized they needed a distress signal as well. By 1923, pilots were communicating via radio, so picking up something easy to punch out in Morse Code wasn’t really necessary. Simply shouting “help” into the radio was ruled out, because it was too likely to come up in situations that weren’t true emergencies. While simply shouting “SOS” probably didn’t come up in day-to-day communications, “mayday,” and eventually “mayday mayday mayday” became the designated way to call for aid.
Unlike SOS, there was some intentional, secondary meaning to “mayday.” Senior radio officer Frederick Stanley Mockford came up with the term while working at the Croydon Airport, which regularly interacted with traffic from France. Mayday didn’t sound like an English word, but did sound like m’aider, or the end of the phrase “can you help me” in French, which was considered a plus. Along the same lines of logic, less imminent danger can be reported with radioing “pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan,” which happens to sound a lot like panne, the word for “broken” in French.
Toot toot toot: Trains in trouble
Train engineers have their own emergency signal that they can make with their horns. Because the horns aren’t used to communicate with rail yards or railway control rooms, the primary goal of this distress call is to alert any bystanders of danger. The signal is basically a series of repeated, short toots, which presumably will be loud and frantic enough to grab people’s attention so they notice where the troubled train is headed. For less dire situations, trains have a set of horn signals based around long or short toots, almost like the dots and dashes of Morse Code. You’re most likely to hear a “long long short long” set of toots, which indicates that the train is approaching a public crossing.
Source: The origins of SOS and Mayday, OxfordWords blog