Every once in a while, when you enter a search term in Wikipedia it sends you to what it calls a “disambiguation page,” which is a page where Wiki lists all the possible things you might have meant.

I’ve seen a lot of those “disambiguation” pages, but if you want to see the longest one I’ve ever seen, just enter “mayday” or “May Day” as a search term and look at that page.

There are 53 choices!

As I mentioned earlier this year, May Day, which used to be a traditional spring festival where kids danced around a pole and elected a May Queen, has not only been corrupted by politics, but has also become a distress signal that no one likes to hear. Ever wonder how such a mess ever came about?

Just short of a hundred years ago, back in 1923, a “senior radio officer” at Croydon Airport in London was given a simple task that he bobbled rather badly. Asked to think of a word which could be clearly understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency he could have chosen an easy to understand word like “urgent” or “emergency,” but he picked something from another language, namely “m’aider,” a shortened version of the French phrase “venez m’aider,” which means “come and help me.”

“M’aider,” of course, is pronounced “mayday,” and that’s where all the confusion began. In just a minute you’ll understand how “mayday” ever got approved when you see who approved it, but you have to wonder why they didn’t at the very least use the word “urgent,” which is the same in both English and French. What is a mayday call is supposed to mean after all? Isn’t it that an aircraft is in urgent need of help?

Listen to this; it may get a chuckle out of you.

There’s another distress call, one I had never heard of until I started looking into that 53-item list. You know what it is? “Pan-pan!”

Now what would you think was going on if you were on some radio frequency and you heard someone yelling, “Pan-pan! Pan-pan! Pan-pan!”

Personally, I’d think that some drunk had lost it.

However, read this comment taken from an article I read about all this: “The International Civil Aviation Organization recommends use of standard ‘pan-pan’ and ‘mayday’ calls instead of just declaring an emergency.”

Goes to show you what happens when we allow decision making to be done by some “international” committee, doesn’t it?

So what does “Pan-pan” mean, and where did it come from?

Where else?

“Pan-pan comes from the French word panne, ‘a breakdown,’ and indicates a situation, such as a mechanical failure or medical problem, of a lower order than an imminent threat requiring immediate assistance.”

And can you believe this? If an emergency radio communication is being confused by chatter from somewhere else, what you are supposed to say is, “see lonce mayday.”

Why?

“See lonce” is the French pronunciation of silence.

Why not just say, “Hey! Get the hell off this channel! This is an emergency!”

What a mess! You know what all this reminds me of? There’s an old joke about a man who fell into a septic tank and was standing on tiptoe up to his lower lip in ... uh ... stuff. When someone came along and asked him how he could help, his answer was:

“Do anything, but just don’t make a wave.”

Now, that I understand.

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