In the UK, when on the phone with a customer service rep and they ask me to spell my first and last name, I say Terianne – T as in “terrible” and when I get to my last name, Falcone, I say F as in Frank (my pop’s name).
But I notice when they read it back to me they always say T as in Tango, F as in Foxtrot. And I think, Since when are Brits so into dance? However, when I have to give the Apple support guy my Mac serial number on the phone, he confirms two letters with non-dance words, specifically Mike and Charlie. Dances and monosyllabic guys’ names…? Hmm. At least I can recognize the words. When I lived in Italy and had spellings confirmed over the phone, initially the only word I could understand was the city I was living in. I heard adskdula fliydophumo ghfisllo boofoto Roma fyucoskeuvlo. After I started traveling around the country, I heard oiftprre migolpwa Roma pyrlktopro gooytdome Ancona tfyhruidna lgydtmopto Calgari — A-HA!!! ITALIAN CITY NAMES! They were using Italian cities to confirm spellings! (The rest of the world is using Alfa and Bravo but the Italians insist you learn Italian geography. They kill me. But that’s be another blogpost.) Figuring that out made me feel very gdoutyremne (smart).
But it’s the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet that is most widely used and you’ve undoubtedly heard it. For example during the Vietnam War, VC referred to the Viet Cong — or Victor Charlie and soon enough, “Charlie” became the moniker for these guerrilla fighters. “Roger” in the sense of “OK” came from an earlier version of the spelling alphabet meaning “received”. (The standard has since changed to Romeo to signify the letter “R”.)
Originally, it had been two-way radio that created the need for a spelling alphabet to avoid uncertainty, given that voice quality was low and many letters sound similar, for instance “n” and “m” or “f” and “s”. The set of replacement words needed to be chosen such that they are as distinct from each other as possible. If a burst of static cuts off the start of an utterance of the letter J, it may be mistaken for A or K. With the current version shown above, the sequence J–A–K would be pronounced Juliett–Alfa–Kilo.
While ordinary mix-ups might cause inconvenience, confusion between letters can have lethal consequences in military contexts. It’s not surprising that the spelling alphabet became intensely utilized and increasingly codified during wartime. The United States standardized its spelling alphabet in 1941 among all branches of its armed forces. This American version became known as “Able Baker” after the words for A and B. (Fun fact: The nurses in M*AS*H, the film, were nicknamed Able and Baker by those lovable rogue doctors, Hawkeye and Hunnicut. God, I loved that Sierra Hotel Oscar Whiskey!)
However, throughout World War II, most nations used their own versions of a spelling alphabet. For many years after the end of the Second War, every communications company and each branch of every country’s military had its own spelling alphabet, with the result that at one point, there were 203 different spelling alphabets, comprising 1600 different words. Charlie Hotel Romeo India Sierra Tango!
In 1952, the The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations decided to revisit the spelling alphabet. To identify the issues, testing was conducted among speakers from 31 nations, principally by the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States. The standard is unsurprisingly made up of English words/names as English was increasingly becoming the international language.
The official spelling is alfa with an F, not alpha with a P in order to avoid any confusion among non-English speakers who might not know that “ph” should be pronounced “f”. (The above graphic notwithstanding — and many others, believe me I searched! Anglo-Saxon shortsightedness cum arrogance, I suppose). Juliett is spelled with two Ts for the benefit of French speakers who might otherwise consider it a silent letter. The number 9 changed from “nine” to “niner” to accommodate the Germans who confuse nine with nein.
There are, of course, fun anecdotes and trivia:
- John F. Kennedy was once talking with his wife and some friends when Kennedy mentioned that someone was a “Charlie Uncle Nan Tare”. Jacqueline Kennedy asked what that meant. They changed the subject.
- One of The Bloodhound Gang’s many Intercourse with You songs is named “Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo”. (Classy!)
- George Clooney’s character in The Men Who Stare at Goats. “We’re Oscar Mike. That’s ‘on the move’ soldier.”
- A Simpsons episode shows that the Springfield police have an unusual radio alphabet: Snake’s licence plate is read out as “Eggplant Xerxes Crybaby Overbite Narwhal”.
- The film, Hot Shots, satirized the phonetic alphabet on a few occasions such as:
Jim 'Wash Out' Pfaffenbach: Alpha Velveeta Knuckle Underwear, you are cleared for take-off.
Lt. Commander Block: Uh, Sphincter Mucus Niner Ringworm, roger!
But my personal favorite is the military inside joke of the use of Alfa Mike Foxtrot — they use it when they bomb the enemy to mean, “Adios, Mother Fuckers!” They say it right at the beginning of the clip:
So that Tina Fey movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — what did that title mean? WHAT THE FUCK do you think?