Printable Version
Pronunciation: es-o-es Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: An emergency distress signal to elicit help; a mayday.

Notes: Dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot!Notice that we spell today's word without periods even though it is widely taken to be an abbreviation. Many think that it stands for "save our ship", "save our skins", or "save our souls", but it doesn't stand for anything and never has (see Word History). Since it is not an abbreviation, we think it more consistent to omit periods, even though it is pronounced letter by letter. This puts it in a class with ID, as in ID's, ID'ed, ID'ing. Mayday, from French (venir) m'aider "(come) help me", is the verbal equivalent of SOS for aircraft, ships, and other vehicles in distress.

In Play: Now that the telegraph has given way to electronic communication systems, this Morse Code signal has become pass. The word remains, however, as a synonym for distress signal: "The presidential election in Florida in the year 2000 was an SOS from the US electoral system." Its symmetry helps keep it alive despite the loss of its original function: "I just received an SOS call from Hetty; she has had enough summer camp and wants us to come get her."

Word History: Today's Good Word is composed of the letters corresponding to the Morse Code distress call: • • • – – – • • •. SOS was officially adopted as the world-wide distress signal by the International Radio Telegraph Convention July 1, 1908. It replaced CQD, from CQ, a signal simply alerting all stations on a telegraph line + D for "distress". CDQ was easily mistaken for a word. SOS was chosen because it was both easy to tap out on a telegraph key and caught a telegraphist's attention, since it consisted of nine straight characters with no intervening spaces. The other letters in Morse code contain two to five dots and/or dashes and are separated by spaces.

Dr. Goodword,

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