What Does SOS Stand For?


A lot of people think that the distress signal is an abbreviation for “save our souls” or “save our ship.” But in reality, "save our souls" and "save our ship" are backronyms, and the letters don’t actually stand for anything.

In fact, the signal isn’t even really supposed to be three individual letters. It’s just a continuous Morse code string of three dots, three dashes, and three dots all run together with no spaces or full stops (…---…). Since three dots form the letter "S" and three dashes form an “O” in International Morse code, though, the signal came to be called an “SOS” for the sake of convenience. That connection has led to the letters coming into their own as a visual distress signal divorced from Morse Code, and those in need of rescue sometimes spell them out on the ground to be seen from above.

You could also break down the string into IJS, SMB and VTB if you wanted to.

The Logic Behind "SOS"

So why use that specific string of dots and dashes if there’s no meaning to it? Because it was the best way to get the job done.

When wireless radiotelegraph machines first made their way onto ships around the turn of the 20th century, seamen in danger needed a way to attract attention, signal distress, and ask for help -- a unique signal that would transmit clearly and quickly and wouldn’t be confused for other communications. At first, different organizations and countries had their own “in-house” distress signals. The U.S. Navy used “NC,” which was the maritime flag signal for distress from the International Code of Signals. The Marconi Company, which leased its equipment and telegraph operators to various ships, used “CQD.”  The “German Regulations for the Control of Spark Telegraphy” of 1905 mandated that all German operators use “…---…”.

Having these multiple distress signals was confusing and potentially dangerous. It meant that a ship in distress in foreign waters had a language barrier to overcome with would-be rescuers, even if using International Morse Code. Because of this and other issues, various countries decided to get together and discuss the idea of laying down some international regulations for radiotelegraph communications. In 1906, the International Wireless Telegraph Convention convened in Berlin, and delegates attempted to establish an international standard distress call. Marconi’s “-.-.--.--..”, and “………-..-..-..” (“SSSDDD”), which Italy had proposed at a previous conference, were deemed too cumbersome.  Germany’s “…---…”, though, could be sent quickly and easily and was hard to misinterpret. It was chosen as the international distress signal for the nations who met at the conference, and went into effect on July 1, 1908.

Getting on Board with "SOS"

The first recorded use of the “SOS” as a distress signal was just over a year later, in August, 1909. The wireless operators on the SS Arapahoe sent the signal when the ship was disabled by a broken propeller off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Not everyone got on board with the new standard as quickly, though. The Marconi Company was particularly reluctant to give up on “CQD.” The Marconi operators on board the Titanic initially just sent that signal after the ship struck an iceberg, until the other operator suggested they try the new “SOS” signal, too.

Pandemic vs. Epidemic: What’s the Difference?

If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
doble-d/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the words epidemic and pandemic are showing up in news reports more often than they usually do. While the terms are closely related, they don’t refer to the same thing.

As the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) explains on its website, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.” Usually, what precedes an epidemic is an outbreak, or “a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.” An outbreak can affect a single community or several countries, but it’s on a much smaller scale than an epidemic.

If an epidemic can’t be contained and keeps expanding its reach, public health officials might start calling it a pandemic, which means it’s affected enough people in different areas of the world to be considered a global outbreak. In short, a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. It infects more people, causes more deaths, and can also have widespread social and economic repercussions. The spread of the Spanish influenza from 1918 to 1919, which killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world, was a pandemic; more recently, the H1N1 influenza created a pandemic in 2009.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There’s no cut-and-dried classification system for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Based on the definitions above, it might seem like the current coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, falls into the pandemic category already—according to a map from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 34 countries, and nearly 2700 people have died from the disease. It’s also beginning to impact travel, stock markets, and the global economy as a whole. But WHO maintains that although the situation has the potential to become a pandemic, it’s still an epidemic for now.

“It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month. “I think you could have people arguing each end of it. Pandemics mean different things to different people.”

[h/t APIC.org]

You’re Probably Pronouncing Nevada All Wrong

OwensImaging, iStock via Getty Images
OwensImaging, iStock via Getty Images

As people around the United States were checking who won the Nevada caucus this weekend, many were faced with a different question: How exactly do you pronounce Nevada?

The case of Ne-VAH-duh versus Ne-VAD-uh was thrust into the spotlight recently as candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination toured the state, but the controversy isn't new. George W. Bush and Michelle Obama have been accused of mangling the pronunciation, and in 2016, Donald Trump incorrectly told Nevada residents they were pronouncing the name of their own state wrong. The subject is so sensitive to Nevadans that Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval sent a text to former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination John Kasich instructing him how to say the word.

So what is the right way to say Nevada? University of Nevada in Las Vegas associate history professor Michael Green told The New York Times that Ne-VAD-uh (with the second syllable rhyming with mad) is the standard pronunciation with locals, while saying Ne-VAH-duh (second syllable rhymes with spa) will expose you as a foreigner to the state.

The reason for the confusion may be that Nevada is a Spanish word. Meaning “snow-capped,” Ne-VAH-duh would be the correct pronunciation if you were to say the name in its original tongue. But following a flood of Northern and Midwestern settlers to the state in the 1860s, the hard a prevailed.

Not everyone in Nevada agrees there's one true pronunciation. In 2010, a Las Vegas assemblyman introduced a bill that would have officially made Nev-AH-da an acceptable alternative. The resolution never made it off the ground, and using the Spanish pronunciation will still get you funny looks in the state today—especially if you're a politician.

[h/t The New York Times]