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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Phonetic Alphabet

The other day, when I was in a travel agent's office, I was fascinated to listen to her spelling my name on the phone: Delta, Romeo, Uniform, Echo, Tango, Tango. It's a clever way of helping to prevent confusions and misunderstandings, and a practice I normally associate with airline pilots.

A friend reminisces that it was used in the old days by telephone operators, too, when putting through calls on those old plug-in switchboards that involved a bewildering web of wires. (She's actually quite young, so please don't think she is pictured in the charming old scene above!)

However, I find from a recent thread of discussion on the Maritime History discussion list Marhst-L--which is sponsored and administered by the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, with assistance from Queens University at Kingston, Ontario--that the phonetic alphabet is maritime in origin, and closely connected with flags.

A page on the Naval Historical Center website explains it all.

The practice began in the early 1900s, it seems, and has been adapted as the decades slipped by. Back in 1913, A was Able, then became Affirmative, which reduced to Affirm and finally became the much more gutsy sounding Alfa. Similarly, Boy for B evolved through Baker to Bravo, Dog for D to Delta (one wonders when it will change to Dubya!), and E for Easy to Echo, while Fox for F became the much more bouncy Foxtrot. In the same spirited vein Watch for W eventually became Whiskey. As for R, using Roger (which also means "understood") proved too confusing, and so became the sexy Romeo.

4 comments:

Phil said...

The question is, do you use Dubya for D or W?.
Different groups / organisations made up their own phonetic alphabets so they didn't cesessarily evolve from one to another, they were just created differently.

Joan Druett said...

Sorry, Phil, it was a feeble joke. :) I started to look through your website, brought up by clicking your name, which appears to have an array of phonetic alphabets. Some are created by you? It looks fascinating, but then it suddenly developed a glitch, and my browser brought up that irritating message, "Operation aborted." Do hope it gets fixed soon, as I would like to explore it at leisure.

Carter said...

Hi, Joan--

When I was a deck officer in a US Navy destroyer in 1950-51, we used the Able-Baker-Charlie-Dog alphabet, and so did everybody else. Later they changed it, including the Roger to Romeo switch, but I've been using the old one ever since to spell out things on the phone, and it still works. :-) I'll bet it would even in New Zealand.

Carter

Carter Jefferson, editor
The Internet Review of Books
http://internetreviewofbooks.com

M Mansell said...

Here in New Zealand, we use a specific alphabet but can understand them all. Really it should be quite obvious - but some people get completely thrown off when a different alphabet is used.