What Does Sos Stand For

A lot of people think that the distress signal is an abbreviation for “save our souls” or “save our ship.” But in reality, “save our souls” and “save our ship” are backronyms, and the letters don’t actually stand for anything.

In fact, the signal isn’t even really supposed to be three individual letters. It’s just a continuous Morse code string of three dots, three dashes, and three dots all run together with no spaces or full stops (…—…). Since three dots form the letter “S” and three dashes form an “O” in International Morse code, though, the signal came to be called an “SOS” for the sake of convenience. That connection has led to the letters coming into their own as a visual distress signal divorced from Morse Code, and those in need of rescue sometimes spell them out on the ground to be seen from above.

You could also break down the string into IJS, SMB and VTB if you wanted to.

The Logic Behind “SOS”

So why use that specific string of dots and dashes if there’s no meaning to it? Because it was the best way to get the job done.

When wireless radiotelegraph machines first made their way onto ships around the turn of the 20th century, seamen in danger needed a way to attract attention, signal distress, and ask for help — a unique signal that would transmit clearly and quickly and wouldn’t be confused for other communications. At first, different organizations and countries had their own “in-house” distress signals. The U.S. Navy used “NC,” which was the maritime flag signal for distress from the International Code of Signals. The Marconi Company, which leased its equipment and telegraph operators to various ships, used “CQD.”  The “German Regulations for the Control of Spark Telegraphy” of 1905 mandated that all German operators use “…—…”.

Having these multiple distress signals was confusing and potentially dangerous. It meant that a ship in distress in foreign waters had a language barrier to overcome with would-be rescuers, even if using International Morse Code. Because of this and other issues, various countries decided to get together and discuss the idea of laying down some international regulations for radiotelegraph communications. In 1906, the International Wireless Telegraph Convention convened in Berlin, and delegates attempted to establish an international standard distress call. Marconi’s “-.-.–.–..”, and “………-..-..-..” (“SSSDDD”), which Italy had proposed at a previous conference, were deemed too cumbersome.  Germany’s “…—…”, though, could be sent quickly and easily and was hard to misinterpret. It was chosen as the international distress signal for the nations who met at the conference, and went into effect on July 1, 1908.

Getting on Board with “SOS”

The first recorded use of the “SOS” as a distress signal was just over a year later, in August, 1909. The wireless operators on the SS Arapahoe sent the signal when the ship was disabled by a broken propeller off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Not everyone got on board with the new standard as quickly, though. The Marconi Company was particularly reluctant to give up on “CQD.” The Marconi operators on board the Titanic initially just sent that signal after the ship struck an iceberg, until the other operator suggested they try the new “SOS” signal, too.


While people often think that SOS means“save our ship,” SOS doesn’t actually mean anything. Many people think that SOS is short for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls”, but that’s actually not the case. Further evidence that SOS does not mean “Save our ship” or “Save our souls” is the fact that SOS was first adopted by the Germans in 1905.


In both the German law of 1 April 1905 and the international regulations of 1906, SOS is defined as a continuous Morse code sequence of three dots/three dashes/three dots without mentioning any alphabetical equivalent. Because the international Morse code had an S representing three dots and an O three dashes, the original distress signal soon became known as SOS. This Morse code distress signal is still widely known and used today, but in 1999 it was officially superseded for use on ships and aircraft by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

Morse Code

The German government first adopted this distress signal in Morse code in 1906, and it proposed its widespread use at the first International Radiotelegraph Conference in Berlin that same year. Germany was the first country to adopt the SOS distress signal, which it called the Notzeichen signal, as one of three Morse code sequences included in the National Radio Regulations that came into effect on April 1, 1905. All three are encoded signals. Ships, planes and stranded people around the world continue to use this aid even 162 years after American Samuel Morse invented the first successful telegraph instrument in 1837.

Distress Signal

None of this is true, but one thing is for sure: The term SOS is used as a distress signal and is often used by the Marine Corps, especially when reporting emergencies from ships, and it is based on Morse code. Although SOS is officially just a typical Morse code sequence, not an abbreviation for anything, in popular usage, SOS is associated with phrases like “Save our souls” and “Save our ship.” This literal acronym was originally known as the International Code and/or Extreme Distress Signal.

SOS Emergencies

Due to the widespread use of SOS in emergencies, the phrase “SOS” has become widely used to informally indicate a crisis or need for action. Currently, the use of SOS as an example of a general reference to a request for help is informal. Today, the SOS signal remains the simplest and best signal to use when someone is in trouble. Today, a ship can signal an emergency with the push of a button, picking up the phone, or calling over the airwaves, but the SOS message will likely continue to act as a back-up emergency call.


When someone uses it as a visual distress signal among the pebbles on a desert island beach, the original distress signal is unlikely to disappear entirely. The classic SOS distress signal is still considered a valid distress signal today, especially if it was sent visually using a signal mirror, but don’t worry, if you call SOS in Morse code or speak into the microphone, the world will still Know you need help. When the Titanic sank, the Titanic actually used both the CQD signal and the Morse code distress signal to call for help. The Marconi operator on the SS Arapahoe initially only signaled after the boat hit the iceberg, until another operator suggested trying the new “SOS” signal as well.

Ship Operator

The operator of the ship in distress then delays sending the SOS SOS message to give the off-duty radio operators time to reach their radio room. It has been documented that the Titanic first used CDQ to report an emergency, and later, at the suggestion of second radio operator Harold Bride, first radio operator used SOS. Second radio operator Harold Bride then suggested to first radio operator Jack Phillips that they at least spread the SOS message in their distress calls. In International Morse, three dots make an “S” and three dashes make an “O”, and it soon became common to informally refer to SOS as “S O S”, with the electric world on January 12, 1907, which states that “ships Those in distress use a special SOS signal repeated at short intervals.

Three dots

SOS – three dots followed by three dashes followed by three dots sent as a single line – has become the agreed upon message for an emergency message due to its ease of use and the fact that it is unlikely that the message has been misinterpreted . Looking at what Wikipedia has to say about the origins of the SOS distress signal, it seems that it was first formally introduced in 1905 as part of radio regulations in Germany and then shortly thereafter adopted as an international standard in 1906. the letters SOS (pronounced S-O-S) are used in Morse code as a distress signal, a way to call for help during an emergency, such as on a ship. On January 20, 1914, the London International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea adopted the Morse code sequence “TTT” # # # # # # # # # (three “T” (###)) – usually located after three letters, not to be confused with the three dashes in the letter “O” (# # # # # # # # # #) – and are used for messages to ships “ related to the safety of navigation and are of an urgent nature.’


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