Also called a spelling alphabet or a phonetic alphabet, (not to be confused with the entirely different International Phonetic Alphabet,
) this is a system of assigning to each letter of the alphabet a word that begins with that letter. This way, if something has to be spelled over a radio, telephone, etc. there is much less chance of the wrong information being transmitted.
The military, police departments and radio operators all make frequent use of this. Phone-based customer service and technical support also use it, but with more informal construction (any word will do), for the same reasons. (The formal ones specifically pick words themselves which all sound distinct from all the others with poor sound quality.) The most common alphabets are shown below, from A to Z.
|NATO || WWII (US) || WWII (UK) || LAPD|
The NATO version is near universal in the modern age, because it is also used for civil aviation throughout the whole world (for which English is the only official language). In addition, if the NATO system is being used, expect the digit 3 to be pronounced "tree"; 4 to be pronounced "fo-wer" to distinguish from "for", 5 to be pronounced "fife" so it won't be confused with "fire"; and 9 to be pronounced "niner", to keep it distinct from "nein", German for "no" (as well as from "five," as the two are indistinguishable otherwise over a distorted signal).
This is used almost exclusively in modern military shows. Non-military shows which use it will usually stick to A-E, since they are more recognizable. Exclusively military shows tend to use more of the letters.
Military units will sometimes use one of the letters as their designation (for example, 'Bravo Company'). Individual personnel may refer to themselves or others in the military alphabet over radios; "Echo-6-Charlie" would be someone whose pay-grade is E-6, with a last name beginning with the letter C. (Alternately, the number is code for a position withing the unit. 6 usually is the commander.)
And that's without getting into the ones used in other languages...
For satirical purposes, an anti phonetic alphabet
can be used, for example Inspector Clouseau's
"J as in jalapeno". Another set, named "Fanatic Alphabet", can be found here.
Fox Item Love Mike
Lima India Tango Echo Romeo Alpha Tango Uniform Romeo Echo
- Flight of the Intruder uses this for a bit of a Genius Bonus: A character uses "Alpha Mike Foxtrotnote " to sign off after calling in an airstrike on himself because the North Vietnamese were using him as bait for rescue choppers.
- Hot Shots! had a very funny parody of the phonetic alphabet.
Jim 'Wash Out' Pfaffenbach: Alpha Velveeta Knuckle Underwear, you are cleared for take-off. When you hit that nuclear weapons plant... drop a bomb for me!
Lt. Commander Block: Uh, Sphincter Mucus Niner Ringworm, roger!
- The highway patrol in Super Troopers use a unique version when reading license plates over the radio. With inherently funny words like "eunuch".
- George Clooney's character in The Men Who Stare at Goats. "We're Oscar Mike. That's 'on the move' soldier." Approximately coincides with the popularity of Generation Kill and Modern Warfare 2.
- Die Hard 2 uses military alphabet when referring to the plane that is bringing General Esperanza to the United States. It is designated FM (Foreign Military) 1, though later in the film, both Colonel Stuart and Esperanza refer to it as "Foxtrot Michael 1", despite the military alphabet using the shortened name Mike for the letter M.
- Dr. Strangelove is a fairly early example. The B-52 is assigned to targets Yankee-Golf-Tango-three-six-zero and November-Bravo-X Ray-one-zero-eight as part of the wing's Attack Plan R for Romeo, or Robert (used by General Ripper in communication with his RAF exchange officer Mandrake, as per the British Royal Air Force's own pre-NATO phonetic alphabet).
- In The Incredibles, Helen identifies her plane as "India Golf Niner Niner" — a reference to The Iron Giant being released in 1999.
- The survivors in The Island have these as part of their names.
- The Cannonball Run. The Obstructive Bureaucrat trying to stop the illegal road race is watching the contestants at the start gate and getting the woman with his to write down the license plate numbers. He confuses her by using this trope for the numbers (she keeps writing down the word in full until he explains what it means).
- In the 2010 The A-Team movie, Face uses "Alpha Mike Foxtrot", standing in for "Adios, Mother Fucker" (the full form of which, except for its final use, is hidden by a Sound Effect Bleep).
- In Star Trek: First Contact, Picard's, Crusher's and Worf's command authorization codes feature "tango," "charlie" and "echo" respectively. Picard's also includes "alpha," but it's most likely the Greek letter since Crusher's and Worf's feature "beta" and "gamma" in the same character position of their respective codes.
- In Star Trek, Chekov's includes "victor" twice. The computer still doesn't understand him due to his accent.
Mary Union Sam Ida Charlie
- Biggles uses the now less well known World War I era British alphabet. One of the few uses that survived is "Ack-Ack" for AA (anti-air) fire.
- In Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, Spike Milligan mentions how the British in North Africa had to adapt to the American system when America joined the war, to much confusion.
- War games mentioned show the British dividing themselves into Ack Army and Beer Army.
- The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy features an overly-educated police officer who can never remember "all this Foxtrot Tango Piper business", so he makes up his own using words the sergeant he's reporting to doesn't know - the Crowning Moment of Funny is "W for Wagner. No, Wagner!"
- In Rivers of London Inspector Nightingale has the unique callsign Zulu-One, representing his unique position in the Met.
- Robert Westall's short story Blackham's Wimpy revolves around a bomber group, featuring planes S-Sugar, C-Charlie and L-Love, among others.
- In You Only Live Twice, Tiger Tanaka tells James Bond that the Japanese do not swear. Bond expresses incredulity that Tiger never wants to say Freddie Uncle Charlie Katie.
- Within The Bourne Identity, Bourne was given the callname of Cain with an elaborate backstory involving the U.S. having changed the C from Charlie to Cain during The Vietnam War due to confusion with the designation of the Vietcong as "Charlie." Just as Cain replaced Charlie in the Military Alphabet, Cain would replace Charlie (Carlos the Jackal).
- In Team Yankee, the eponymous team is named for the phonetic letter Y, while its sister unit, Team Bravo, is named for the phonetic letter B. The phonetic alphabet is also featured prominently during radio communications.
Papa India November Bravo Alpha Lima Lima
Papa Romeo Oscar Whiskey Romeo Echo Sierra Tango Lima India November Golf
- One of The Bloodhound Gang's many Intercourse with You songs is named "Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo".
- One of Wilco's albums is titled Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was taken from a sample that's featured on the track "Poor Places".
Roger Able Dog Item Oboe
Tare Easy Love Easy Victor Item Sugar Item Oboe Nan
- The entrance theme of WWE stable The Shield starts off with radio chatter spelling out "Shield" with the NATO military alphabet (Sierra - Hotel - India - Echo - Lima - Delta), which is fitting, considering their paramilitary-esque gimmick.
Victor India Delta Echo Oscar Golf Alpha Mike Echo Sierra
William Easy Baker Charlie Oboe Mike Interrogatory Charlie Sugar
- Archer 's inability to use this creates a Crowning Moment of Funny in "Skytanic". Seriously, Mancy?
- The Los Angeles actives in Dollhouse — who are the focus of the show — are all named from it. (The ones at the Washington, DC branch are named after Greek gods, suggesting that each branch uses a different scheme.)
- The Simpsons episode "Separate Vocations" shows that the Springfield police have an unusual radio alphabet: Snake's licence plate is read out as "Eggplant Xerxes Crybaby Overbite Narwhal".
- In one NCIS episode, information is being confused so Gibbs requires everyone to use the phonetic alphabet. Abby takes to it particularly easily.
- The military alphabet is often used in JAG. Hey, all the main characters are military officers, so why not?
- Being centered around the Air Force, Stargate SG-1 naturally uses this trope, especially with the characters who have a military background. If you ever hear "Sierra Golf Charlie" mentioned they're talking about Stargate Command. One of the peculiarities of number pronunciation is on display when O'Neill's call sign is used: Sierra Golf One Niner.
- Parodied in Family Guy:
Unit 17, please report. Stewie:
Ten-four. Everything's Charlie Forty Sixty. Brian:
What does that mean? Stewie:
I dunno, I just think you're supposed to say names and numbers. Nobody's corrected me so far. (explosion) Stewie:
What the hell was that? (into radio)
Help! Help! I mean...Charlie Tango Cash, Forty-seven Victor Charlie, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Radio: Roger that. We're moving to your position.
- On The Bill, Sun Hill's callsigns all use the combination Sierra-Oscar. Another police-related drama of the early 1980s, following a female police officer, was named Juliet Bravo.
- The TV show Adam-12 was named for the LAPD patrol car with the call sign "Adam-12 (A-12)" that the cops rode in.
- The Boot Camp Episode of Jake 2.0 is called "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."
- The Colonial Fleet in Battlestar Galactica uses this, with a couple space-flavored differences: "Constellation" and "Nebula". Only ten letters are known from the show, but the RPG sourcebooks expand on this with the entire alphabet. Most of the differences from the NATO alphabet are either space-related (Meteor and Quasar) or religiously significant (Icon and Juno).
- M*A*S*H had nurses named Able and Baker.
- Subverted on The Thin Blue Line when it turns out to be requests for drinks from a pizza place. "Tango. Tango. Lilt and a Fanta."
- Since half the characters are ex-military, it pops up often on Person of Interest. Additionally, this is how the Machine communicates with anyone who's not Root.
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Brothers" has Data rattle off a massively long command authorization code that includes "charlie," "tango" and "victor."
Robert Edward Adam Lincoln Lincoln Ida Frank Edward
- Schlock Mercenary: Various examples, but in one comic, after getting some unexpected heavy fire support from an off-screen character, Tagon angrily informs him that it is rude to "fire into someone else's Charlie Foxtrot without asking permission first". Charlie Foxtrot being 20th century American military slang for "Cluster Fuck" (and, evidently, 30th century mercenary slang for the same concept). There are lots of variations on this term, up to not-quite-by-the-name one.
- The NATO alphabet (Alpha Bravo code) was originally designed so that every code word is pronounced in each NATO language in the similar way, so there would be no linguistic misunderstandings. There are some discrepancies, however; "Juliet" is usually "Giulietta" in Italian, and easily mistaken for G. Inversely, Quebec is pronounced in the French manner (Kay-bek) which might confuse some English speakers (Kway-bek).
- In Indonesia, 'Lima' is replaced with 'London' as 'lima' means '5' in local language. Likewise, 'Whiskey' is replaced for 'Washington' because of religious reasons in Arabic countries.
- Most Soviet submarines have Reporting Names randomly drawn from the alphabet. They eventually ran out and changed to another system involving Russian names for fish.
- The Viet Cong during The Vietnam War get their nickname "Charlie" from the phonetic alphabet (think "Charlie don't surf"); they were referred to by US commanders as "Victor Charlie" until it was realised it was one syllable more than the original name, so they dropped the "Victor" to leave just "Charlie".
- Due to organizational inertia, the US Navy winds up using both its WWII alphabet and the NATO one in certain specific situations. For most purposes, the NATO alphabet is the standard, but for material conditions (i.e., which doors/valves to open/shut for batttlestations or chemical attack, etc.) the WWII alphabet is used, because it always has been. Leads to phrases such as, "At time 0000 Zulu, set material condition Zebra."
- Most nations have a military alphabet in their native language, for example, Swedish has "Adam, Bertil, Caesar", German has "Anton, Berta, Caeser" Finnish has "Aarne, Berta, Celsius" and Turkish has "Aydin, Bekir, Cemal" as their first three letters. Nations that have converted to NATO alphabet, but still use non-NATO letters (eg: Å, Ä, Ö, Ü) have to convert these into standard (AA, AE, OE, Y).
- Corresponding Finnish alphabet are Åke (male name), Äiti (mother) and Öljy (oil).
- In an amusing anecdote, John F. Kennedy was talking with his wife and some friends when Kennedy mentioned to one of his friends that someone was a "Charlie Uncle Nan Tare". Jacqueline Kennedy overheard and asked what that meant. Her question was left unanswered.
- The Cyrillic military alphabet used in Russia is notably different in that it mostly consists of given names (A is Anna, B is Boris, etc.). Only the letters that don't have common names starting with are other words: Ts is Tsaplya (crane), Sch is Schuka (pike fish) and the like. Another version is used in the Russian Navy, consisting of old pre-revolutionary names of Cyrillic letters: Az, Buki, Vedi and so on, and flag signals are marked by these. Other services also use it sometimes.
- From 1950 to 1952, the US WWII list was used to name tropical storms and hurricanes that formed in the Atlantic basin.
- Such alphabets are also used in civil aviation for obvious reasons. The NATO alphabet was originally invented by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and was only later adapted by the NATO militaries.
- In another non-military example, English-speaking medical professionals use the phonetic/German "EKG" as short for "electrocardiogram", because "ECG" is too difficult to distinguish from "EEG" (electroencephalogram), and could potentially cause the wrong testing procedure to be administered.
- TANGO VICTOR TANGO ROMEO OSCAR PAPA ECHO SIERRA