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...
- 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.
- The title of the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a war-correspondent-themed dramedy. You can guess what that stands for.
- 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.
- Archer 's inability to use this creates a Funny Moment 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:
Radio: 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.
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.
- In the opening, you can hear the dispatcher (who was real-life LAPD dispatcher Shaaron Claridge) requesting reports on auto license plates, spelled out using the LAPD phonetic alphabet.
- 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."
- The LAPD variation is used extensively in C Hi PS, with the lead characters' call signs starting with 7M (Seven-Mary), the "M" presumably standing for "motorcycle."
- Cole Phelps' radio codename is "Car 11 King".
- The Call of Duty series, specifically Modern Warfare and its sequels, are credited with popularizing a number of NATO alphabet phrases among American teenagers. Most notably, the use of "Tango" to mean "target", "Oscar Mike" for "on the move", and the title of one Modern Warfare 2 mission, "Whiskey Hotel", to mean White House (though this last one may or may not actually be used by the military).
- The flight simulator, Falcon 3.0, makes use of some real-life examples. After shooting down an enemy plane, you'll hear your wingman say "Alpha Mike Foxtrot" ("Adios, mother fucker"). Also, if you give your wingman an order that'll get him killed (e.g., telling him to descend more than his current altitude), he'll tell you "Kilo Mike Alpha" ("Kiss my ass").
- The phonetic jargon in Generation Kill was a plot point: as the reporter grows closer to the squad, they finally start telling him what some of the phrases mean. Like Whiskey Tango = White Trash. The phrase "Oscar Mike," meaning "On the Move" has suddenly seen prevalence in military videogames since Generation Kill aired, notably the aforementioned Modern Warfare 2 and Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising.
- In Half-Life 2 the Overwatch dispatcher uses phonetic codenames and numbers — such as "X-ray 8" or "Union 5" — when addressing specific Civil Protection teams.
- Halo uses it extensively. Fitting, since it's a military-based series. Notable examples include "Sierra" (Spartan) and "Bravo Kilo" (refers to Brutes, short for "Baby Kong").
- Operation Flashpoint makes heavy use of the NATO phonetic alphabet. The topographical maps of the each of the game's islands are partitioned into squares with letters along the top and bottom and numbers down the sides. Combined these letters and numbers form map references and the letters are pronounced over the radio as their phonetic equivalents, so a squad leader might order his men to "Go to Delta Foxtrot Two Five", for example. The words are also often used as codenames to identify the various squads. "Alpha" through "Echo" are usually used to refer to infantry squads, "Yankee" usually refers to a tank platoon, the helicopter gunships are usually "November" and so on.
- The downloadable platform game Blade Kitty has various Mooks cry out "Oscar Michael Golf" or "Sierra Oscar Lima" as you defeat them
- MechWarrior 3 had nav point designations of Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog and Echo, and the fourth game uses Greek letters. Living Legends uses the NATO system for Betty's pronounciation of the alphanumeric base names, up to Golf. Outpost ECHO SIX Captured.
- The Police Quest series uses the LAPD alphabet to refer to specific units. In the second game, for example, you and your partner are 52mary when called by the dispatcher.
- Wing Commander Prophecy has one of the (non-Red Shirt) wingmen give you a blistering "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot over" if you accidentally shoot his ship.
- In the Left 4 Dead comic the army call the infected "Whiskey Deltas", for walking dead.
- Corki the Daring Bombardier from League of Legends makes some use of this when you order him into battle, usually to disguise profanity.
It's a Charlie Foxtrot!translation
Delta Sierratranslation at twelve-o-clock!
Lima Oscar Lima!translation
- In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, aliens are called X-Rays by the soldiers, probably due to the Nicknaming the Enemy pattern common in US forces to call their enemies by the Military Alphabet code for one of their letters.
- The three captains in Pikmin 3 are named after the first three letters in the NATO alphabet: Alph, Brittany, and Charlie.
- In Payday 2 is a rather subtle one. You can find a casual looking magazine with the title of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
- In the English version of Inazuma Eleven GO 2, the members of the villainous Protocol Omega teams are each named after a letter of the NATO alphabet. It's likely intended to emphasize their cold, military precision.
- Borderlands 2 includes a shield aptly named the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. When damaged it ejects an "IED booster", which then throws out three volleys of electrical grenades. Players take self-damage in the game, so if you don't run away, your own shield may kill you.
- In an example of Shown Their Work, the announcer in Battlefield 1 uses the British military alphabet that was used during World War I by the Royal Navy ("Apple" for "A", as an example).
- In Wolfenstein: The New Order, B.J. discovers Nazi documents referencing "Da'at Yichud" and uses the American WWII code to spell the name back to Mission Control so they can research it while he's on the mission.
- 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.
- Waterworks: The green antagonists have this as their Theme Naming, either directly like Juliet and Foxtrot, or by wordplay like (Lima) Bean and Pvt. (Echo) Chambers.
- 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.
- Ham Radio operators are taught to use phonetic pronunciation for letters and numbers when signal conditions make it difficult to listen clearly, especially important when giving their callsigns (which are always alphanumeric combinations such as W1AW). Newer operations are commonly taught the NATO alphabet as the standard, but one will encounter all sorts of variations on the radio. Using the phonetic alphabet when it isn't necessary for clear communication, such as when the signal conditions are ideal, can result in one being judged as a "Lid".