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‘Mayday!’ & May Day

If we delve into the past, the interjections: “Mayday!” and May Day have interesting origins as well as long and varied histories. The terms sound similar, but they are not spelled the same.

“Mayday!” is an internationally recognized radio word to signal distress. It’s used mostly by aircraft and boats. Recently, the crew of the cargo ship that struck Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge issued a Mayday call moments before the crash, enabling authorities to limit vehicle traffic on the span.

May Day is a spring holiday and, in some places, a celebration of working people. Throughout the years, there have been many different events and festivities worldwide surrounding the month of May, most with the express purpose of welcoming in a change of season- autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and spring in the Northern.

In the 19th century, May Day took on a new meaning, as an International Workers’ Day grew out of the 19th-century labor movement for worker’s rights and an eight-hour workday in the United States. The May Day that refers to the first of May has been in English for a very long time — back to the 1200s, in fact — but it’s not what inspired the call for help.

“Mayday!” first came into English in 1923. There was a lot of air traffic between England and France in those days, and evidently there were enough international problems over the English Channel that both parties wanted to find a good distress signal that everyone would understand, other than the one all supposedly understood. It was “S.O.S.,” however, there were some problems with it.

S.O.S. was most commonly used in telegraphic communications, where the unmistakable pattern of S.O.S. in Morse code (…—…) was easy to remember and easy to decipher. It was used predominantly by ships in distress. Aircraft, by comparison, used radio and not telegraph as their primary means of communication, and when in distress, pilots wouldn’t have time to clarify to anyone listening they meant S as in “Sam,” for example. Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter “S” by telephone, the international distress signal “S.O.S.” gave place to the word “Mayday!” — the phonetic equivalent of “M’aidez,” the French word for “Help me.” This short, easily understood word couldn’t be mistaken for something else. In 1927, the U.S. formally adopted it as an official radiotelegraph distress signal.

Now let’s add more to the “merry old month” by listing some astonishing misconceptions about May based on the times when everyone was aware about the significance of the months and the celebrations that followed.

According to an old Cornish superstition, it was unlucky to buy a new broom in this month. And so was washing a blanket!

Some people believed that if you got up on May 1st and washed your face in the May dew, it would remove all freckles and pimples, giving you a great complexion.

Another belief was that babies born in May would be sick all through their childhood, and cats born in May wouldn’t catch rodents but rather bring home snakes.

The month was named after the Greek Goddess of Fertility, Maia. A nameless but famous poet reportedly suggested the name comes from the Latin word, “maiores,” which means “elders.”

No month other than May ever begins or ends on the same day of the week, in the same year.

The birthstone is emerald, which signifies love and success.

The birth flower is the Lily of the Valley.

People born in May fall under two zodiac signs: Taurus (till May 20) and Gemini (after May 21).

Finally, there is one famous quote by Thomas Tusser in reference to the month worth remembering: “Sweet April showers, do spring May flowers.”

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer