May Lay! May Lay!

Don't get hit during it.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From In re Albany County Sheriff's Dept., 2019 WL 4385845 (N.Y. Work. Comp. Bd.):

He described the altercation over which he resigned as words being exchanged in a bar, him approaching a guy, the guy swinging at him, him yelling stop then swinging back and the guy's girlfriend being hit during the may lay.

At least there's no evidence in the record that any of them were Malay.

By the way, there is indeed a link, other than just the similar letters, to "May Day! May Day!"—the distress call originated as a phonetic spelling of the French m'aidez or m'aider, which means "help me." (The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that.) The same thing seems to have happened here with "melee."

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  1. Wouldn’t the French expression be “Aidez-moi”?

    1. Yeah. “m’aider” makes sense as a part of “venez m’aider” or “il faut m’aider” or something like that. “m’aidez” doesn’t make sense.

      1. Well, I tend to trust the Oxford English Dictionary editors for such things, and they report that “may day” comes from “French m’aidez or m’aider ‘help me!’ (the latter being either the imperative infinitive or short for venez m’aider ‘come and help me!’; < me , first person direct object pronoun + aider : see aid v.)." So they seem to think that "venez m'aider" might be the origin, but "m'aidez" might, too.

        1. Hmm. I don’t have access to the OED. But I know that “m’aidez” is not grammatical. The imperative, as y81 pointed out, would be “aidez-moi”. Not that it’s a big deal, of course, just pointing it out.

          1. Would it be grammatical in vernacular French? (Also asking a native speaker, since I’m curious).

            Some thing may not be grammatical as a language is taught, but is perfectly normal in certain extremely common dialects. As an example in Japanese (transliterated): wasureta (first person past tense “forgot”, informal) becomes wasurechata in Tokyo-dialect, and would be recognized everywhere, even if not taught anywhere. Unrelated: my god is romanji hard to read – it’s much easier to read in Japanese.

  2. TiP, when adressing more than one person ‘vous’ must be used.
    The speaker is using the second person plural to call the world to help him. Thus the contraction “m’aidez”. It is “m’aider” that makes no sense. Aidez-moi is not grammatically incorrect, but it is not the phonetic origin of “may-day.

    1. “m’aidez” or “vous m’aidez” is the indicative. This is what makes no sense. As you correctly point out, “Aidez-moi” is the imperative, but as you also correctly point out, this is not related to mayday.

  3. Is any of yous guys French? Doesn’t sound like it.

    1. No. I arrive on foot by way of China.

  4. Something similar also happened with Part Eleven of the Mueller report.

  5. It’s very similar to the people who say they are trying a different “tact” (i.e. approach) when they mean “tack.” Apparently they think “tact” is short for “tactic,” and are unfamiliar with the nautical term “tack,” which describes a way of sailing upwind by going first to one side of the wind and then the other. I normally have too much tact to correct them, but this is a good chance to vent about it.

    1. I cringe when people say “trying a different tact.” Ouch!

      Actually, “tacking” is short for changing tacks. It comes from the square-rigged days. The windward, lower corner of the sail is called the tack. When you come through the wind, you change tacks.

    2. The misuse/misunderstanding of a nautical term that is very common and drives me crazy is, “that doesn’t JIVE with me.” I see it all the time, used even by professional writers on Reason. The term is JIBE, and is somewhat related to tack.

  6. Ever since Thomas Morley’s ballad from 1595 the latest, the month of May has been associated with a peak in amorous activities. It might be that it was May lay in this sense, as the resulting “swinging” often gives rise to jealousy.
    This opinion was brought to you from Scotland where it is frequently cold enough in May to freeze off your twosomes. Singing
    Fa la la la la la la la la,
    Fa la la la la la la lah.

  7. As others pointed out, is is either build directly on “m’aider” as the “jussive” more of the verb (not marked in English) , or a contraction of “venez m’aider”.

    It is however not a misheard or mistranscribed expression, but was chosen intentionally, so to that extend your analogy probably doesn’t fully work. The similarity to French made it easy to remember and it acknowledged French as the then mandatory official language for international communication (cf “Pan Pan”) in the Treaty of Bern, but it was not used in either language as a habitual expression of distress, so it was unlikely to be used in another context and misinterpreted

  8. The court also erred in twice using “him” as the subject of a verb.

    1. I confess I’m not a grammar fiend, but I don’t believe you’re right.

      He described the altercation over which he resigned as words being exchanged in a bar, him approaching a guy, the guy swinging at him, him yelling stop then swinging back and the guy’s girlfriend being hit during the may lay.

      “him” in the two bold bits is not the subject of the verbs “approaching” and “yelling” – which you can tell by the fact that approaching and yelling are not main verb forms but some kind of participle.

      No, the structure is :

      “he described the altercation as :

      words being exchanged
      him approaching a guy
      etc

      ie a conjunctive list of all the things of which the altercation was described as. Thus all those hims are sitting in some clever subordinate clauses, all of which are referencing “the altercation” which is the object of the verb “described.”

      So “him” is correct. For those of us who were staring out of the window when grammar as being taught it’s as well to remember that almost all of the grammar we know is acquired before the age of six when we have no idea what grammar is. We just pick it up naturally from what we hear. So if in doubt just read it out loud and if it sounds daft, it probably is. If you try putting “he” in for the “him”s you will instantly realise that it sounds ridiculous.

  9. I believe the possessive is called for here: “words being exchanged in a bar, his approaching a guy, the guy swinging at him, his yelling stop”

  10. I always thought the phrase “May Day” was chosen as being clearly and easily pronounced no matter what your native tongue was.
    That it derived from a French phrase was surprising.

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