What is an SOS?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An SOS is a distress call which has been internationally recognized since 1906. The use of SOS as a distress signal emerged in the early days of radio communications, when ships wanted to be able to quickly and accurately signal each other to ask for assistance. In addition to being signaled via radio, an SOS can also be signaled using lights, which can be manipulated to spell out words and code terms in International Morse Code; on a radio which allows voice communications, people may use SOS or other terms like “mayday” to indicate that they are in trouble on ships, aircraft, and other vessels.

SOS in Morse Code is sent as three dots, three dashes and three dots.
SOS in Morse Code is sent as three dots, three dashes and three dots.

In Morse Code, SOS is written out as “...---...” and it sounds like “dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit.” Typically, an SOS is signaled with no spaces between the letters, creating a continuous signal, and this differentiates it from other Morse transmissions. It is also very easy to identify, even if a transmission is picked up in the middle, because by convention people repeat an SOS several times, with small breaks between the individual transmissions. Even in situations where voice communications are available, a transmission may include SOS calls so that people just tuning it are aware that an emergency is unfolding.

The German government was the first to adopt SOS, in 1905, and it was picked up by the international community a year later. There are several advantages to using SOS as a distress signal. For one thing, it is very easy to remember, transmit, and comprehend. Also, by choosing a unique signal, the international community ensured that an SOS would stand out from other transmissions, and because the SOS is internationally recognized, ships of any nationality can come to the assistance of a troubled vessel.

Contrary to popular belief, “SOS” does not stand for anything, although a number of backronyms like “save our souls” and “save our ship” have been formed from “SOS.” This code was chosen solely on the basis of the fact that it was easy to transmit. Incidentally, an SOS is also visually readable in any direction, which can be convenient when it is written out.

Prior to the introduction of SOS, many ships signaled distress with the code “CQD,” followed by the call sign of the ship. “CQ” stands for “attention all,” while the “D,” as you might imagine, means “distress.” People also sometimes used the code “NC,” which is derived from the International Code of Signals.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


How many dits are there in the international distress signal SOS?

Some references say that the answer is six, which is incorrect. The correct answer is one.

A dit sound indicates the ending of a character or letter and nothing follows the dit for that character. The letter S is properly sounded didi_dit, while dit dit dit is the letter “E” three times over. Therefore, the correct sounding of SOS is didi_di_da_da_da_didi_dit (the under_score indicates the character or letter is sent as one). The use of the under_score to separate sound elements also enhances student learning by better recognition of the character or letter and the replication of that sound.

SOS is an international distress signal (or general call sign), not a prosign.

A prosign consists of one or more letters; some multiple letters (marked with *) are sent as one character; here are a few:

AR – (di_da_di_da_dit)* End of transmission, no answer expected or required

AS – (di_da_didi_dit)* Wait (may be followed with a number)

B – (da_didi_dit) More to follow -- I have additional message traffic. (military)

BT – (da_didi_di_dah)* Long break. Two per message used to separate the message text from the heading and the message ending. (military)

-- (da_didi_didi_dah) Hyphen. Used in text of military messages (compare separator sign)

-- (di_ditdi_dit) Separator sign. Two I’s sent without normal spacing and used in heading of military messages.

DE – (da_di_dit dit This is or identifies who is sending (Ex: AJM DE AJT K).

F – (didi_da_dit) Foxtrot message – do not answer (military)

FM – (didi_da_dit da_dah) Message originator (military)

G – (da_da_dit) Repeat back (Compare R for message received)

IMI – (didi_da_da_di_dit)* Repeat, also I am repeating

INT – (didi_da_di_dah)* Interrogatory – asks a question, such as INT QSA (military)

INFO – (di_dit da_dit didi_da_dit da_da_dah) Information Addressee (military)

K – (da_di_dah) Go ahead -- akin to OVER in radiotelephone procedures.

R – (di_da_dit) Message received. (Compare G – Repeat Back)

SK (or VA) (didi_di_da_di_dah)* End, nothing follows, I am closing down.

T – (dah) Relay to (military)

TO (dah da_da_dah) Action addressee (military)

Methods for transmitting military message via CW: (note mnemonics FRIG).

F Do not answer. Normally broadcast type traffic such as weather messages

R Receipt for message. Akin to ROGER in radiotelephone procedures.

I Intercept message. Messages exchanged between two or more stations intended for a silent clandestine station.

G – Repeat back of information received instead of receipt method.

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