• 3-minute read
  • 1st May 2020

Word Choice: May Day vs. Mayday

Around the world, May Day celebrations are taking place today. But what is the difference between “May Day” and “mayday”? Make sure you can avoid errors when using these terms by checking out our simple guide below.

May Day (An Annual Holiday)

“May Day” is a traditional holiday held on May 1st each year to celebrate the coming of spring. Many European countries hold May Day celebrations:

English May Day celebrations include singing and Morris dancing.

“May Day” is also International Workers’ Day, a holiday celebrating workers and the labor movement. It is marked in many countries with parades and demonstrations calling for stronger workers’ rights:

The unions planned large-scale demonstrations for May Day.

The key things to remember with this term are:

  • You should always write it as two words.
  • You should always capitalize both terms, as May Day is a proper noun.

If you do this, it should be clear that you mean the public holiday!

Mayday (A Distress Signal)

The word “mayday” is an international distress signal. This means it is used around the world to make a distress call over the radio, usually on a ship or plane. It means you’re in a life-threatening emergency and need help:

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The pilot shouted “Mayday, mayday, mayday!” into the plane’s radio.

As shown above, the word is usually repeated three times in a row. This helps to avoid confusion with similar sounding words (e.g., if you were just radioing excitedly about your plans for May Day).

A senior radio officer at a London airport coined the term “Mayday” in the 1920s. He based it on the French word m’aider (meaning “help me”).

Unlike the public holiday, you should always write “mayday” as one word, and you only need to capitalize it if you use it at the start of a sentence. The similarity to “May Day” is simply a coincidence.

Summary: May Day or Mayday?

These terms look and sound similar, but remember:

  • May Day is an annual celebration of spring and the labor movement. You should write is as two separate words and capitalize both.
  • Mayday is a distress signal. It is one word and not typically capitalized.

Hopefully, you won’t end up writing about an emergency when you mean to write about a holiday! But if you’d like help to check your writing is always error free, why not submit a document for proofreading?

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