Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Etymology Of Mayday And Voice Procedure

With yesterday being May Day, which annoyingly is not a holiday in the UK or the US, it got us thinking about the origins of the term mayday, as used in distress calls.

We had heard that mayday comes from the French expression venez m'aider (come help me), which when you think about the distress signal, makes a lot of sense. When using mayday, the actual distress signal is repeated three times as "mayday, mayday, mayday" to avoid confusion with someone merely discussing a mayday signal.

US Navy air traffic controllers aboard the USS Iwo Jima
Just like the NATO Alphabet, there are several key terms and phrases used in radio transmissions, in particular by the military, mariners, and those in aviation and emergency services due to how much they rely on radio communication. The protocol for using particular code words that are more intelligible by radio transmission is known as a voice procedure and today we'll be going through a few of their origins.

Just like mayday, there is pan-pan which also comes from French. It's an Anglicisation of the French word panne, which can mean broken. Again, this is repeated to avoid confusion with messages that are not the distress signal itself. Pan-pan signals are less severe than mayday.

Securite, which is pronounced like the French word sécurité, is used for safety information.

Most of the other terms used come from English. Common words like yes and no are replaced with affirmative and negative. In aviation, affirm is preferred as otherwise both words end with -tive, which could lead to confusion.

Portuguese Naval ship Sagres
In addition to affirmative, words and expressions such as ten four, copy, and roger all confirm that a message has been well received, and wilco, a portmanteau of "will comply", means not only that the message has been received, but that any new orders will also be followed. Contrary to popular belief, roger and wilco are never used together, unless that is your name.

The terms over and out are also never used together, since over means that the speaker is finished sending and will be expecting a reply, while out means the speaker is finished sending and will not be expecting a reply because communications are finished.

Aside from all their practical uses, radio procedures can also be useful if you're playing "cops and robbers" or pretending to be army soldiers in the park.

If you know any more voice procedure terminology or expressions, leave them in the comments below complete with a definition!