Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 26 April 2010

May 1st 2010

May Day – Mayday!!

Derived from the French venez m'aider, meaning "come (and) help me", the emergency code word mayday is used internationally as a distress signal. It is used and recognised globally during life-threatening emergencies by many groups including pilots, police forces, firefighters and transportation organisations. The call is always given three times in a row to prevent mistaking it for a similar-sounding phrase under noisy conditions and to distinguish an actual mayday call from a message about a mayday call.

The mayday call sign was originated in 1923 by Frederick Stanley Mockford (1897–1962), a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. Mockford was asked to establish a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word mayday from its French origins.

At this time of year the term May Day is more associated with the coming of spring and celebrated with a holiday day on or around 1st May. May Day falls exactly half of a year from November 1 and marks the end of the uncomfortable winter half of the year in the Northern hemisphere. It has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations, regardless of the locally prevalent political or religious establishment. In many countries, May Day is synonymous with International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organised by the unions and socialist groups.

The first day of May is also the traditional day for pagan fertility rites, used for humans, cattle or crops and range from dancing round the maypole to blessing cattle as they go out into the field. Dancing around the maypole symbolises a ritual to welcome in the spring and bring good luck to farmers, the origins of which are probably Germanic. The UK parliament banned maypole dancing in 1664 but it was restored later by King Charles II. Long ribbons are attached to the pole and each person grabs hold of a ribbon and dances round the pole in different directions to create a pattern. In most countries, maypole dancing takes place on or around 1 May, but in Sweden it is also part of the nation's midsummer celebrations.

May Day is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane, Gaelic for the month of May, and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night on the eve of May 1st, believed in German folklore to be the night of a witches' Sabbath on the Brocken, in the Harz Mountains.

Other references to the term May Day include an early seventeenth-century stage play, written by George Chapman. This comedy was first published in 1611 and exploits the plot device of gender disguise and cross-dressing that was so common in English Renaissance drama. Continuing the acting theme, Grace Jones plays the character May Day in the 1985 James Bond film, A View to a Kill.

Whether you are Maypole dancing or simply looking forward to a well earned holiday in May, we hope that you enjoy it - without the requirement for a Mayday call!


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