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MAYPOLES, MAYFLIES, AND THE MAYFLOWER
Celebrating May’s Impact on the English Language
There are many reasons to celebrate in May. With thanking mothers, honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and embarking on postgraduation adventures, there’s no shortage of importance when it comes to May. And the English language makes this pretty clear. Check out these unique facts about English words or phrases that use the word “may.” AVOIDING MAYDAY ON MAY DAY About 100 years ago, the English and French faced quite a dilemma. As aircraft paths were more frequently crossing the English Channel, the countries needed to develop a distress signal that could be easily distinguished over the radio. While SOS was commonly used by armies across the globe as a sign of mayhem, “S” sounds were hard to hear over the radio. The French reverted to using m’aidez , which means “help me.” Soon, the English added their own spin, deciphering the phrase as “mayday.” The new phrase went global thanks to bulletins posted in popular publications, and today, it’s known as a worldwide distress signal. Not to be confused with the international phrase for help, May Day is a cultural celebration dating back millennia. For some cultures, May Day, traditionally held on May 1, is an important day signifying the halfway point of the year. Other cultures celebrate and honor fertility on May Day with maypoles that represent male fertility and wreaths and ribbons that depict female fertility.
Today, May Day celebrations continue in their traditional format, while some people celebrate the holiday by simply doing kind deeds for their neighbors. Thankfully, there’s little cause for mayday on May Day. MAY’S MOST FAMOUS SHIP The Mayflower, named after the English word for the small, white hawthorn flower, served as a merchant ship before making its biggest voyage in 1620 from England to the eastern coast of North America. But the Mayflower was one of many. There were actually dozens of English ships named Mayflower, and in 1620, today’s most famous ship in the bunch headed down the River Thames into the English Channel with another boat, the Speedwell. A group of Puritans and others fleeing religious persecution boarded the vessels, hoping for a new home in the West. But there’s a reason why we only recognize the Mayflower and why the Speedwell has been forgotten for most of history. Just as the two ships began their journey in August, the Speedwell sprang a leak. Waiting for repairs pushed the journey’s start date to September, and that attempt was just as unsuccessful. After this second leak on the Speedwell, weary travelers either gave up on the trek altogether or joined the hopeful Pilgrims on the Mayflower.
Mayflower finally landed in present-day Cape Cod. The rest is history — literally.
LIVING LIKE A MAYFLY Life is short, especially if you’re a mayfly. To no surprise, mayflies hatch in May, but they traditionally only live a few days. Most of that time is spent mating and reproducing, which mayflies are particularly skilled at. The average female mayfly can lay anywhere between 400–3,000 eggs. After being dropped in water, the eggs grow and mature before hatching every May. Many people who live near rivers have come to expect the mayflies’ uncanny ability to blanket entire towns in a mask of creepy-crawlies when they hatch each spring. Despite their short lifespans, mayflies are actually powerful little creatures. Fish feed on the insects and their carcasses, making them popular bait among fishermen. Scientists even use mayfly eggs as a marker for water pollution and clarity. The eggs are extremely sensitive to pollution of any kind, and only one-fourth survive mild pollution. Still, researchers believe mayflies are evolutionary wonders. They are believed to have been around before dinosaurs, and the famed Greek philosopher Aristotle even mentioned mayflies in his writing. If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it should be that we could all live a little bit more like the mayfly and seize the day.
In November 1620, after a treacherous, dangerous, and deadly journey, the
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