The Washington Post

SOS: A definition in distress


The March 1 Style review of SZA’S “SOS” album and concert, “At Capital One Arena, SZA creates waves of reflection,” explained that SOS, depending on whom you ask, means either “save our ship” or “save our souls.”

Actually, it means neither.

SOS, as a distress call, is merely a short stream of three dots, three dashes and three more dots. The letters themselves stand for no words, but those two phrases have been attached to the letters by unknowing wags in years following its adoption in 1908.

The original distress call, CQ, was used by landbased telegraph operators years before Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless was installed in ships. CQ simply meant that this message is “intended for all stations.” The “D” was later added to make it a distress call. But CQD was not universal; Germany used SOE and the United States used NC, both of which were calls for immediate help. (And CQD did not mean “come quick, danger,” despite what I’ve seen in print.)

At an internatio­nal radio conference in Berlin in 1906, SOS was proposed as the universal distress call for ships. Nearly all nations, except for the United States, formally accepted this by 1908, but implementa­tion took a while. Small wonder that the Titanic in 1912 sent out both CQD and SOS after it hit an iceberg.

Jack French, Fairfax

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