QuickCheck: Is it true that SOS means Save Our Souls?

A US Army Signal Corps radio operator in 1943 in New Guinea tapping out a message on a telegraph key to be transmitted via radio. - Public Domain

WHEN someone sends out an SOS, it means that one is sending out a distress signal.

But does SOS stand for Save Our Soul(s)?



According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, SOS is an internationally recognised signal of distress in Morse code, used especially by ships calling for help.

Morse code is a method of communication used in telecommunication where text is encoded in a series of dots and dashes.

Operators would use a telegraph key to encode a message which would then be transmitted to a receiver on the end who then decoded the message.

These codes would be transmitted first over wires in the early 19th century, and then over radio waves at the dawn of the 20th century.

The reason they used dots and dashes was that the telegraph key was essentially a switch that would send an electrical pulse down the wire (or through the air via radio signals) when tapped, so dots represented short presses, and dashes long presses.

Going back to "SOS", when translated, the three dots indicate "S", while three dashes represent "O". So, when "SOS" is transmitted as "• • • - - - • • •".

In 1906, it was first agreed upon by the International Radio Telegraphic Convention that SOS was merely a distinctive Morse code sequence, and at that point in time, not an abbreviation.

However, as the signal became more popular, SOS became associated with mnemonic phrases such as "Save Our Souls" and "Save Our Ship". And due to its high-profile use in emergencies, the term "SOS" has become general usage to indicate a crisis or the need for action informally.

Among the early recorded use of the SOS messages occurred on Feb 4, 1910, by Steamship Kentucky, travelling from New York to the Pacific Coast. As the ship was about 110 nautical miles off North Carolina, it developed catastrophic leaks and sank. The use of radio to communicate SOS saved some 46 lives onboard.

In modern times, you can still create SOS without the need for Morse Code. You could use a torchlight and flash three times rapidly, three times slowly, and another three times rapidly (like the Morse code SOS). Or, you could use a flag or piece of clothing and wave it across to draw attention.

Ultimately, stay safe and stay out of trouble.


1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/SOS

2. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.ah6gfm&view=1up&seq=186

3. https://www.themanual.com/outdoors/how-to-signal-sos/

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