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What Does SOS Really Stand For?

"SOS" is not an acronym, it is just a call for help that was chosen because it is easy to recognize in Morse code. It is an internationally recognized distress signal that does not stand for "Save Our Ship," "Save Our Souls," or other later coined phrases, as some believe.

In Morse Code, an "S" is three dots and an "O" is three dashes so the signal "SOS" is three dots, three dashes, and another three dots in a continual string.

When sending it the dashes are three times as longs as the dots to help distinguish between them. It is easy to remember and hard to misinterpret for anything else if you are familiar with the code.

Let's look at how this signal became the universal call for help and how exactly how one is sent.

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Origin of SOS

Language barriers often hinder communication, but when it comes to emergencies, we really need our calls for help to be understood loud and clear.

In the early 1900s, different companies or even countries had their own versions of emergency communication and signaling. Sometimes rescue was made very difficult or even impossible with many different ships using different languages.

As the number of boats on the water worldwide grew and grew, it seemed to become clear there needed to be some better universal communication for safety measures.

The SOS signal was first adopted by the German government in 1906 who, later that year, proposed its widespread use at the first International Radiotelegraph Convention in Berlin.

It was accepted by many countries who attended the convention, and the agreement officially went into effect on July 1, 1908.

From there, SOS started to take the place of the CQD signal, which is believed to be one of the first distress signals accepted for radio use.

rms slavonia

RMS Slavonia, 1909

The first actual reported uses of the SOS signal came in 1909. The RMS Slavonia sent the first SOS recorded when the ship ran aground and became stranded. This emergency signal was clearly received, and all crew members and passengers were rescued safely.

There was some resistance in adopting and using only SOS, which was likely because many operators had gotten just grown accustomed to their already known signals.

In 1912, when the Titanic set sail, the older distress signal CQD was still widely used even though sailors knew of the newer SOS signal.

The Titanic actually used both the old CQD and the SOS signal to call for help as it sunk. Famously, after the captain spent hours of using distress signals with CQD the junior operator turned to the captain and said, "Send SOS. It’s the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it." After that, they alternated between the two signals. Unfortunately, in this case, rescue came too late for the Titanic.

Things seemed to change rapidly after the Titanic, and SOS soon became the primary and universal emergency distress signal used worldwide.

How to Send an SOS

SOS can be sent in any way Morse code can—for example, light signals, sound signals, and even blinking. It can also be used and recognized visually by spelling out the actual letters for people to see.

sos on island

One recent example of this occurred in 2020, where three Micronesian sailors got stranded on a remote island and were saved when rescuers from the air saw the big letters "S-O-S" written on the sandy shoreline.

Normally when sending a word in Morse code, there will be brief pauses between letters and words to help make the signal clearer.

The "SOS" signal is not meant to be the letters "S-O-S" spelled like the word but actually a continual string signal with no pauses.

It is also not meant to be the whole message but rather just the procedural sign, or start, of an emergency message.

For example, "SOS. Engine failure, stranded at sea."

SOS in Morse code is "• • • ─ ─ ─ • • •", and the simple rule to remember when sending it is that the dash signals should be around three times as long as the dots.

However long it takes you to send the dots, make the dashes three times longer and repeat the dots again.

Here is an example of what an SOS signal sounds like:

SOS Today

SOS is still commonly known and used but was officially replaced for use on ships and aircraft, in 1999, by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

This new system includes a higher-tech new digital system that includes automated signaling and coordination to help make location and rescue much easier.

These days you can find an Emergency SOS feature within arms reach and available on most phones that can assist a person with signaling an emergency.

It usually involves pushing some button combination that will make an alert and call the local authorities.

ios sos features

You can sometimes even add an emergency contact, and the feature can text them your location.

Obviously, this version of SOS won't help you in the event you get stranded at sea, but it is another example on land how the SOS is still going strong over a hundred years later.

To learn more about these features for both iPhone and Android, and make sure they are set up on your phone, visit HERE.

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