For 108 years SOS saves lives

July 1, 2016 10:54 am

SOSExactly 108 years to this day, the SOS became the worldwide distress signal, three years after the German government first adopted it. Since then, every time there is an emergency, the SOS distress signal is used to ask for help. That is why we chose it as the IATE term of this week.

Since the 19th century, the system of communication between ships at sea was the wireless telegraphy. Without it, ships which were at sea and out of visual range were isolated from the shore and from other vessels. Telegraphers used Morse code to send messages, which is a method of transmitting text information as a series of on-off tones, lights, or clicks that can be understood by a skilled listener or observer without special equipment.

Coming back to the distress signal, do you know what SOS stands for? No, it is not the 5 seconds of summer as our readers from Luxembourg might think, nor is it the music band of the same name probably known by our younger audience. Although, in popular usage, SOS is associated with “Save Our Ship,” “Save Our Souls” or “Send out Succour”, SOS doesn’t actually stand for anything.

In the international Morse code, SOS looks like this · · · – – – · · ·. It is a continuous sequence of three dots; three dashes and another set of three dots, all run together without letter spacing. In Morse code, the dots are called “dih” and the dashes, the long signals, are referred to as “dah“. There are three dots that form the letter S and three dahs make the letter O, so “SOS” became an easy way to remember the order of the dits and dahs. In addition, SOS is the only nine-element signal in Morse code, making it more easily recognizable, since no other symbol uses more than eight elements.

Other suggestions for a distress signal were taken into consideration. These were C.Q.D., which is said to mean “come quickly, distress,” or “CQ,” a general call used to alert other ships that a message follows, and “D” for danger. However, all the alternatives were put aside and now SOS is the only international distress signal. Its oral equivalent is mayday. Mayday is the international radio distress signal and it is used especially by ships and aircrafts. It is an Anglicization of the French m’aidez or m’aider, meaning ‘help me’.

SOS in iate

Contribute to IATE! We would welcome your contribution if you know the correct term in your language and it is among the missing ones or if it needs an update. A terminologist for the respective language will revise your answer and validate it. Given the implications of the process, a delay is to be expected.

Languages to be completed for this term in IATE: BG, CS, ET, GA, HR, HU, LT, LV, MT, PL, RO, SK, SL.


IATE term of the week SOS

Written by Raluca Caranfil
Communication Trainee at TermCoord
Journalist & Student at the University of Luxembourg

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  • James Borg

    The SOS signal established itself as the distress call to use in alternative to CQD when it was sent from the RMS TITANIC on 15th April 1912.

    • EP TermCoord