May Day. Maypoles. Cinco de Mayo. What’s up with all these references to May? Today we’re going to look at that first one, May Day. You may know this as some sort of vague holiday, and also as a radio distress signal. But where did these originate?
Like many holidays, May Day is pagan in origin. It is basically a celebration of Spring (or summer, depending on where you live). In many places it is quite a lively celebration, and yes, there is often dancing around a “maypole.” The reason this all may be unfamiliar is because we don’t really celebrate May Day in this country, though we do celebrate Cinco de Mayo (“fifth of May”), a holiday to recognize Mexican heritage. It marks the date of a Mexican victory over France in 1862.
To further complicate matters, “May Day” is also celebrated, especially by organized labor, as a worker’s holiday. It marks the day in 1886 when the workday was to be shortened to eight hours.
But my larger concern here is how “May Day” came to be an international distress call, which actually is one of my favorite word-origin stories. What connection is there between a celebration of Spring and a pilot in distress? Absolutely none. What we have here is a case of homophones – words that sound alike but mean different things. The “mayday” call was originated in 1923 by a British radio officer, and it has nothing to do with the month of May. People who use the distress call probably don’t realize that they’re essentially speaking French. The call comes from the French phrase “m’aider.” And what does that mean?