Few people today know Morse code. Even those applying for Amateur Radio licenses are no longer required to learn it. Most people, however, know that three shorts, three longs, and three shorts (…—…) spells SOS and is a distress signal.

It has often been said that SOS stands for Save Our Ship, but that’s not true.

In the early 1900s, various countries had their own distress signals. For the British, the distress signal in Morse was -.-. –.- -.. or CQD. The first two letters, CQ, was a prefix that meant the following message is meant for everyone listening (rather than someone in particular). For a general announcement, an operator would signal CQ to tell everyone to pay attention, then send a message.

The letter D didn’t stand for anything by itself. But when added to CQ, it meant distress. The three letters together meant, “Everyone, we need help.”

In 1905, the German government came up with its own distress call, SOS. It was short, distinctive, and easily recognizable.

In just a few years, SOS began to be accepted as the international distress call, supplanting CQD and others.


In 1912 when Titanic struck an iceberg and was taking on water, the radio operator repeatedly sent out both CQD and SOS.

SOS is a palindrome. That is, it reads the same frontwards and backwards. However, a nicer feature is that it is also an ambigram — a word or design that looks the same right-side up or upside down. (Other ambigramic words are dollop and mow.)

If you are trapped on a mountain and stamp out a huge SOS in the snow, rescuers will read it correctly no matter which direction the helicopter is flying.

Those three letters have saved thousands of lives over the years. And people have come up with many ways, according to their circumstances, to send them.

Many a trapped person has clanked or banged or tapped SOS. Those who are lost or injured have flashed them with a flashlight or mirror or cell phone that had battery but no cell service.

Hostages have even blinked them with their eyes.


Sometimes people are in situations that make SOS, even by blinking the eyes, impractical.

There is now a modern signal for “I Need Help” that can be given in an instant. It is done in two motions. First, face your palm forward with your thumb tucked in. Second, close your fingers over the thumb, trapping it. This is called “The violence at home signal for help.”

Late last year, a driver in Kentucky saw a teenage girl make the signal. He called 911 and followed the car the girl was in. Due to her smart thinking and his knowing what the hand gesture meant, the girl was saved.

One more note about Morse code, but not about SOS.

During WWII, the BBC started their radio news broadcasts with the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (da da da dum). Why? Because in Morse code, the rhythm of those four notes signifies the letter V. And to the Brits, V stood for victory.

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