May Day!

Happy May Day! There’s a good chance that today is a holiday for you (if it’s not, my condolences). Initially a Spring Festival in the Northern Hemisphere, you can still find many celebrations based on old Pagan traditions. In the late-19th century, 1st May was chosen by the Second International as the date for International Workers’ Day, in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair, which took place in Chicago in 1886.

Like the names for the other months, May is Latin in origin. The month was named for Maia, the Roman goddess of the spring and growth.

You may also be aware, by the way, that in addition to being the name of the holiday, Mayday is also used as a distress call in the field of aviation. Though note that in this case, it’s one word with only the M capitalised. This is in contrast to the holiday, which is May Day, because it’s an actual day. You might have heard something of the origin of the term Mayday. When I first heard about it, it sounded like one of those stories that sounds too be cute to be true. But there is in fact some truth to it.

Most versions I heard were based around the idea that British radio operators in World War 1 heard French pilots cry out “M’aidez!” (“Help me!”) when shot down, and transcribed that as Mayday. Which first sounds vaguely plausible, but on further reflection, a bit silly: surely someone would have known some basic French, or found someone who did! And why would panicked French pilots cry out in English?

But there is still a link between M’aidez and Mayday. In 1923, senior British radio officer Frederick Stanley Mockford was tasked with coming up with an easily-understood distress call. As much of the air traffic at the time was between Croydon in England and La Bourget Airport in Paris, he decided that it needed to be something easily understood by both French and English speakers. He eventually struck upon Mayday (though in his mind, it was to be understood by French speakers as a shortening of “Venez m’aider!” [“Come help me!”] and not “M’aidez:” though “M’aidez” and “m’aider” sound the same anyway). It’s always to repeated twice to ensure that it’s not confused for a similar, more innocuous word.

On a side note, while refreshing my memory about Mayday, I came across the delightful term Pan-pan. This comes from the French panne (breakdown or mechanical failure) and is used in radio communications to indicate a problem, but not of the magnitude that would call for Mayday. It’s a good think Pan-pan and Mayday never swapped places: I don’t think I could really take an urgent call of Pan-pan!! too seriously.

So as we welcome the spring today, and salute the workers of the world today, let’s also thank the French language for two more contributions to the English language.

Photo: Johannes Zimmer – SPÖ Presse und Kommunikation1.Mai 2013

7 thoughts on “May Day!

  1. […] You’ll know it if you’ve seen any film or TV programme featuring military radio communication. It replaces each letter in the Latin alphabet with a corresponding word beginning with the same letter: C – Charlie, W- Whiskey, B – Bravo etc. The reasons for the existence of the alphabet are clear enough: to make communication clear by making it easy to identify each letter of a word. This is especially important in international communication, where an English word might not be clear to the ears of the speaker of another language. This was taken into consideration when choosing the words to correspond with each letter, with the final choice being made after thousands of comprehension tests involving 31 nationalities. The international nature of the language also influenced the spelling of some of the words. Most are spelled as they normally are in English, except for Alfa and Juliett. The ph in Alpha was changed to an f as ph does not obviously have the same sound as f for some non-English speakers. Equally, the single t at the end of Juliet might be taken to be silent, particularly by French speakers. […]


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