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Ask SAM: Do May Day and mayday have anything in common?

Ask SAM: Do May Day and mayday have anything in common?

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Q: What is the background on May Day? Is it any relation to mayday, the international distress call?

G.B. 

Answer: Friday is May 1, also known as May Day. History.com explained the background and celebrations that have marked the date. In many countries, today is a national holiday.

The first celebrations of the date go back to the ancient Celts in the British Isles. They considered May 1 to be the most important day of the year.

The Celts thought the day marked the halfway point of the year between light and darkness. They held a festival called Beltane to celebrate fertility returning.

When the Romans conquered England in 43 A.D. they had their own festival, called Floralia. It celebrated Flora, the goddess of flowers, and was held from April 20 to May 2. Beltane was combined with Floralia.

Celebrations continued through the centuries. During medieval times, dancing around the maypole with brightly colored streamers and ribbons was a favorite celebration. In some places, it continues today.

May Day’s association with workers' rights began in the United States when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor, announced at a convention in 1884 that beginning May 1, 1886, the eight-hour work week would be instituted, to improve workplace conditions.

Britannica.com said that in many countries it is known as Workers Day, to celebrate workers. It is similar to Labor Day in the United States and Canada.

In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower declared May 1 as Law Day. The American Bar Association said that, “Law Day is held on May 1st every year to celebrate the role of law in our society and to cultivate a deeper understanding of the legal profession.”

To answer the second part, we turned to Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people, for help. Mayday, the distress signal, is used primarily by airplane pilots and ships’ captains to declare a life-threating emergency.

About 100 years ago, the British were looking for a term that was easily understood over the radio so that pilots flying over the English Channel could use to call for help if an emergency arose.

There was SOS, but it might be misunderstood. It works great in Morse code, but not so well in voice. By the time you got through saying 'sierra Oscar sierra' you've defeated the purpose of having a quick call for help. Ships used Morse code and pilots used voice. 

“Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter ‘S’ by telephone, the international distress signal ‘S.O.S.’ will give place to the words ‘May-day,’ the phonetic equivalent of ‘M'aidez’ the French for ‘Help me.’

A Royal Air Force pilot was the first to try out the new distress call when his engine failed over the English Channel in 1923. The call began to spread throughout the world.

A Nov. 25, 1927 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer said the United States formally adopted "mayday" as the distress call.

Over the years it's been adopted by maritime operators, as well.

When used, it is repeated three times so that there is no confusion. Immediately after issuing the call the radio operator gives details of the emergency and their location. 

Email: AskSAM@wsjournal.com

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