‘SOS’ Doesn’t Stand For Anything

By Jeff Kelly on Monday, January 20, 2014
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“10:55 PM: Titanic calls Olympic SOS. [. . .] 11:00 PM: Titanic calls CQD and says ‘I require immediate assistance.’ ” —Communication logs from RMS Titanic

In A Nutshell

People rarely have the need to use Morse code these days, but even plenty of novices know SOS. It’s the easiest code to remember since it’s a simple three dots, three dashes, and three more dots. Most people believe that, because it was often used on the seas, it stands for “save our ship” or “save our souls.” However, it turns out that SOS doesn’t actually stand for anything at all, and is used simply because of how easy it is to remember.

The Whole Bushel

Samuel Morse is the inventor of Morse code, which you probably already knew. This code, in which ships, planes [om really anyone at all could use to communicate via a moderately complex series of dots and dashes.

The most famous code in Morse’s system is SOS, which consists of three dots, three dashes, and then three more dots. It’s the universal distress call, and given that it has been so frequently used in the world of boating, people have generally always just assumed it stands for “save our ship” or “save our souls.” As it turns out, however, that’s not at all what it means. In fact, “SOS” doesn’t have any meaning at all.

So why is SOS used for distress calls, when Morse code is so prevalent in sailing and among ships? Because of its incredible simplicity. Think about it for a second, and it makes a lot of sense. The pattern is extremely easy to remember, right? And that’s exactly why it has become that universal distress call.

It actually wasn’t always used as the international Morse code distress call. Before SOS came along, people used the code for CQD. That first started in 1904, when Guglielmo Marconi adapted the general British call of CQ and added the D on there to stand for distress. And in the same way people have misconceptions about SOS, people have mistakenly concluded that CQD stood for “come quick danger.” Since CQ was the code for general calls, that would have been literally interpreted as “all stations” with the D being added for “distress.”

It was in 1906 that the change was made from CQD, with the thinking that SOS offered such an easy and unmistakable pattern that it would be the most beneficial for someone using Morse code who found himself in trouble. It was officially made the new universal distress call in 1908, but it still took years for SOS to catch on. For example, when the Titanic went down they signaled CQD, but when they didn’t receive any response, they mixed in SOS calls.

Show Me The Proof

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Samuel Morse
What is the Meaning of SOS?