Stupid Question ™
May 3, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Why do pilots say “mayday” when a plane goes down?
—Spirit of St. Vitus
A: “Mayday” (officially “MAYDAY,” all caps, in the rulebooks) is the international radio signal for distress. Theoretically, any rescue ship and control tower from here to Hong Kong will recognize and respond to a mayday call.
Mayday was officially adopted at the 1927 Washington, DC meeting of the International Radio Telegraph Convention—the same group that a couple decades earlier had come up with “SOS” as the international telegraph distress signal.
The term has nothing to do with May Day (May 1), often celebrated as a pagan and/or Communist holiday—except that it makes it easy for English-speakers to pronounce and recognize.
It is in fact a crude English phonetic representation of the French phrase m’aider (“help me”). It’s actually pronounced something like “me-DAY,” and the Convention actually said that “MAYDAY” was to be pronounced the French way.
One of many strange things about this is that everybody agrees it’s lousy French. M’aider does mean “help me” within French syntax, but it isn’t used as a stand-alone imperative command. What French people in distress actually shout is, “Au secours!” This has led to some desperate etymologists to claim that what the Convention really meant was an abbreviation of the phrase, “Venez m’aider” (“Come help me”).
Stranger still is why French was being used at all. France had no obvious special prominence in radio or air/sea travel in the 1920s.
In fact, all the international radio distress signals are in French. There’s “pan-pan” (from panne, meaning “breakdown”), which means an urgent but not life-threatening emergency. And there’s “securite” (French for “safety” or “security,” and pronounced the French way as “she-ker-eeh-tay”), which means a warning of hazardous conditions.
And when you call for radio silence to keep a frequency open for a downed plane or ship, you’re supposed to pronounce “silence” the French way (“seelonce”).
While the French language is the lingua franca of radio distress signals, it doesn’t rule the radio roost: the international radio alphabet (for spelling out plane numbers and the like) is in English.
You’d think the modern age would find a better way to communicate, and most pilots have. A “mayday” call will still get you help, if it isn’t garbled or misunderstood. But far more important is tuning the plane’s radio transponder (a device that communicates with control tower radar) to code number 7700. This will instantly alert any radar station that the plane is in severe distress—a new-fangled “mayday” call that’s easy to understand in any language.