It doesn’t mean ‘Save Our Ship’ nor does it mean ‘Save Our Souls.’
SOS, the international distress signal, doesn’t mean anything. In fact, it may have been chosen “because it could not be misinterpreted as being a message for anything else.”
The pattern — three dots, three dashes, three dots — was easy to remember. Moreover, it doesn’t matter at what point in the pattern a receiver hears the distress call (. . . – – – . . .) as long as the sender keeps repeating it.
On 03 November 1906, 27 countries agreed that “SOS” should be the international distress signal. The event: the first International Radiotelegraph Convention in Berlin.
Two years prior, the Marconi company had introduced “CQD” as a distress signal for British ships with wireless equipment. In 1905, the German government introduced “SOS” as its distress signal.
SOS became effective on 01 July 1908.
Despite the international agreement, adoption was slow. In April 1912, the Titanic broadcast both CQD and SOS as it sank after hitting an iceberg.
The distress signal used by Marconi operators – CQD – boomed out over the Atlantic. The wireless operators joked they may as well also try another new distress signal that had been introduced – SOS – because they might never get a chance to use it again.
Not only is SOS a palindrome (a word that reads the same backwards and forwards, like civic, deified) it’s also an ambigram, a word that looks identical whether read upside-down or right-side-up. When carved into a snowbank, say, or spelled out in boulders on a beach, SOS still looks like SOS no matter which way the rescue chopper approaches.
The pattern created the signal. However, in Morse code, three dots (…) is an “s” and three dashes (—) is an “o.” Eventually, SOS became the shorthand for “help!” like this icon on an iPhone.