« Dude, noggin! | Main | Routine »

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

'N' as in, uh...um, mnemonic

I recently overheard a phone conversation where an Israeli friend was trying to spell out his email address to a non-Jew in the US.  He began the email address with "OK, the first letter is 'R' as in... um, Rechovot...".  I can just imagine the puzzled look on the other guy's face as he silently wondered, 'what the hell's a Rechovot'?

But this phenomenon isn't limited to native-born Israelis.

I used to cringe as I'd listen to my lovely wife (with whom I share an office at home) trying to come up with words to spell things out over the phone.  But one day while listening to her struggle to find recognizable words starting with the necessary letters I finally began interrupting her.  It went something like this:

Zahava:  "OK, my email address is Zahava... that's 'Z' as in um, uh... Zamboni"

Me: "Zulu"

Zahava: "uh, yeah, I mean Zulu.  'A' as in, er, ah, um..."

Me: "Alpha"

Zahava: "Right, 'Alpha'... H, as in, um..."

Me:  "Hotel... Alpha... Victor...Alpha............"

You get the idea. 

Anyway, when she finally got off the phone she turned to me and asked, "How did you do that?  I can never come up with good words that quickly!"

I couldn't believe she really thought I came up with those words on the spot.  There and then I decided to share an open secret with her... as I'm about to share it with you:

There is something called the phonetic alphabet (sometimes called the NATO alphabet).  It is an internationally agreed upon series of common words that correspond with every letter of the alphabet. 

These words are your friends.  They will keep you from sounding like a complete idiot silly when trying to spell things out to strangers over the phone.  Each one of these words was selected for its ability to be easily pronounced... and because anyone with even a rudimentary proficiency in English will instantly recognize the word and know what letter it begins with.

I first learned the phonetic alphabet when I was in the navy, but I soon found out that pilots, shipping companies, couriers, bankers and a host of other people also use this common list of words in order to avoid confusion when spelling important things out on the phone or over the radio.

Here is the list.  Print it out and learn it well... and never again let me overhear you saying something like "That's 'M' as in, uh...um, mnemonic":

Letter    -    Code
A    -   Alpha (AL fah) 
B    -   Bravo (BRAH VOH) 
C    -   Charlie (CHAR lee) 
D    -   Delta (DELL tah) 
E    -   Echo (ECK oh) 
F    -   Foxtrot (FOKS trot)
G    -   Golf (GOLF)   
H    -   Hotel (hoh TELL) 
I    -   India (IN dee ah) 
J    -   Juliett (JEW lee ETT) 
K    -   Kilo (KEY loh) 
L    -   Lima (LEE mah) 
M    -   Mike (MIKE)   
N    -   November (no VEM ber)
O    -   Oscar (OSS cah)
P    -   Papa (pah PAH)
Q    -   Quebec (keh BECK)
R    -   Romeo (ROW me oh)
S    -   Sierra (see AIR rah)
T    -   Tango (TANG go)
U    -   Uniform (YOU nee form)
V    -   Victor (VIK tah)
W   -   Whiskey (WISS key)
X    -   X Ray (ECKS RAY)
Y    -   Yankee (YANG key)
Z    -   Zulu (ZOO loo)

Note: The syllables printed in capital letters are to be stressed.

Don't thank me... I'm a giver.


Posted by David Bogner on November 29, 2006 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference 'N' as in, uh...um, mnemonic:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Ok, it works with English speakers, but Israelis? Try telling them that Charlie starts with C...

Posted by: westbankmama | Nov 29, 2006 12:33:40 PM

This reminds me of my favourite running gag in the Tintin books: the way the two detectives Thompson and Thomson announce themselves over the phone, e.g. 'This is Thompson, with a "P", as in "psychiatrist"'.

Posted by: Simon | Nov 29, 2006 1:29:43 PM

Oh, man, Bogner... for some reason, I think you are SO in Tango-Romeo-Oscar-Uniform-Bravo-Lima-Echo. This actually falls into the category of trying to get American civilians to see the wisdom of using the metric system, or the military clock (which is also the international train clock, which is also the European and Israeli clock, which is also the entire civilized world clock...) Fugedaboudit. Ain't happenin', Cap'n. BTW, any idea how pomegranate tea affects laptop keyboard operation, besides slowing it down, I mean? I merely ask for information...

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Nov 29, 2006 2:21:41 PM

Okay, so tell me....how do you spell them the umlauts? = }

Ü like..... (I like the Austrian vatiant!)
Ö like ...
Ä like ......

uh-oh, sounds like Ärger?



*comes back*

No wait... the first German Buchstabiertafel contained Jewish names that, surprise surprise, where exchanged for "non-Jewish" ones - though today, S is Samuel, and Z is still Zacharias. (source)

Posted by: Account Deleted | Nov 29, 2006 2:21:45 PM

The only problem we used to have when using the phonetic alphabet on the phone with customers is having to explain what the words meant when they asked. I got a call once that required the use of Foxtrot, and the caller asked if I was talking about horses. He thought the whole thing was funny. Then there's the issue of people too lazy to learn to speak proper English. We're required to use the phonetic alphabet, but no one taught the dennisons of the ghetto that work here how to pronounce the words, so those get screwed up too.

Posted by: Amanda Rush | Nov 29, 2006 3:13:10 PM

Bravo Zulu David! ... now explain that one.

Posted by: Oceanguy | Nov 29, 2006 3:20:55 PM

Don't feel badly, but Americans aren't the only ones who have used this concept. There are quite a few phonetic alphabets, some of them here: http://morsecode.scphillips.com/alphabet.html
I especially like the one based on place names: J is for Jerusalem...

Posted by: toby | Nov 29, 2006 3:27:04 PM

This story was told to me some years ago by a friend. Rav Aaron Soloveichik was overheard on the phone helping the person on the other end of the line with the spelling of his name...
"S" as in "Soloveichik"
"o" as in "oloveichik"
"l" as in "loveichik"
Has Zahava tried this approach? Chedva has found it useful.

Posted by: Alan | Nov 29, 2006 3:43:20 PM

In my line of work I end up reading a lot of serial numbers over the phone. I picked up using the phonetic alphabet from a former coworker of mine who was had served in the marines. It does sound cool but I feel like a bit of a poser using it and often mix it up with other words just to keep people from thinking I actually served in the armed forces.

R for Rechovot is a killer though - hillarious!

Posted by: Shifra | Nov 29, 2006 3:44:31 PM

Alan: ROTFLMAO! (If that isn't too pedestrian given the subject!).

Reminds me of that awful video clip that was circulating not too long ago.... "Operator, I need the number for Brecher! B...R...E...Che...R"

Posted by: zahava | Nov 29, 2006 4:11:04 PM

Base station, this is Rescue 51. Roger that. If we got your spelling right, we copy your order for suspending the patient from his ankles and administering ice water enemas during transport. We’re code 4. Rescue 51 out.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Nov 29, 2006 4:30:41 PM

You need to come up with a phonetic Hebrew alef-bet now...

Ch... as in Chesed
Tz..as in Tzion

...ooh, what else?

Although, I have to admit as a customer service employee, if anyone ever gave me an "R as in Rechovot" I would think that to be the coolest thing ever...even though my coworkers would call me M...as in Meshugenah...

Posted by: Shanah | Nov 29, 2006 4:43:36 PM

westbankmama... yeah, I can here them saying "tzadi vis de chupchik, like charlie". :-)

Simon... Since we're on the subject of pronunciations, I'll tell you about one of my big disappointments about moving here. In the US everyone mispronounced my name as Bogner (first syllable rhyming with hog) when it is Bogner (first syllable rhyming with vogue). I figured when we moved to Israel and the vav in the Hebrew rendering of our name would solve the problem. People now call me Boogner. [sigh]

rutimizrachi... very nice. We take you in... serve you good coffee... hook you up with a shiny laptop, and THIS is the way you thank us?! ;-)

a. ... Don't you know that those letters don't even exist for most of us. When we English speakers see a word in a book with a couple of dots over it... we just ignore it. Unless it is the name of a quality ice cream product, that is. :-)

Amanda Rush... Look, I can understand a certain portion of the population feeling that including vocabulary words in the SAT test such as Regatta is guaranteed to stump a portion of the racial mix. But which words on this list is it unreasonable to assume everyone would have at least heard by the time they turn 15?

Oceanguy... Thank you (it means 'well done', for all you landlubbers). But did you know that until 1956 it used to be rendered as 'Baker Zebra'? Source here. :-)

toby... Sure there have been many. But the whole point of this one was so people of all countries could communicate easily.

Alan... I'll have to try that some time. :-)

Shifra... It isn't just military people who use it. Don't be shy... use the right words. The more consistent you are, the easier it will be for others to remember and use the right words themselves.

Zahava... [peeking around the corner] so we're ok?

Doctor Bean... Who can resist a man who can combine military and medical terminology! :-)

Shanah... That would require me to learn the difference between chet and chaf... and aleph and ayin, right? :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 29, 2006 4:51:13 PM

I had to explain the phonetic alphabet to my son while watching The Incredibles. "Mommy, why is she saying 'This is India Golf Niner Niner'? She's Elastigirl!"
My dad is a WWII vet and tried to use it as code with my mom so we wouldn't figure out what Hanukkah gifts we were getting. That didn't last long.

Posted by: Kayla | Nov 29, 2006 4:56:18 PM

Great posting! I always love spelling my name as "Yankee, Alpha, Romeo, Oscar, November." The intrigue! By the way, an old variant of the acrophonic alphabet is as follows:

Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca, Denmark, Edison, Florida, Gallipoli, Havana, Italia, Jerusalem, Kilogramme, Liverpool, Madagascar, New York, Oslo, Paris, Quebec, Roma, Santiago, Tripoli, Upsala, Valencia, Washington, Xanthippe, Yokohama, Zurich

Posted by: Yaron | Nov 29, 2006 5:04:26 PM

As the kid of a military brat/having grown up in a military-heavy area, I've often spelled my street name (Fenwood) as "Foxtrot-Echo-November-Whiskey-Oscar-Oscar-Delta."

Posted by: Annie | Nov 29, 2006 5:22:24 PM

I want to see the whole alphabet using four letter words. Come on Trepp, you can do it.

Posted by: cruisin-mom | Nov 29, 2006 5:42:30 PM

Doc Bean,

You are a regular Randolph Mantooth, aren't you.

trying to get American civilians to see the wisdom of using the metric system

Feh on the worthless metric system.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 29, 2006 5:57:37 PM

Interestingly, I posted on this a while back (here). As part of my research for the post, I ended up pulling out a lot of old history.

There's an interesting evolution of military call-signs (and the accompanying phonetic alphabets) ever since the radio became a commonly used instrument in war. It used to be that different *services* in the US used slightly different alphabets! (Not to mention different countries that used most of our letters...)

This changed relatively soon after WWII (I could dig up when, but I'm lazy) with the introduction of the 'consensus' NATO codes, which most countries/militaries use today. It's very similar to the way in which ammunition/weapons/etc. were standardized across NATO militaries to make for easier interoperability.

...I could not get into a whole discussion wrt other ways in which NATO has affected interoperability (and how I suspect the EU is beginning to), but I'll just leave you with this one thought: Why has NATO (and to an extent, the EU) managed to introduce such measures that promote interoperable forces/etc., while the UN still can't manage it?

(I have an answer, but that's for another blog post, neh? *grins*)


Posted by: matlabfreak | Nov 29, 2006 5:57:41 PM

Kayla... As far as I know, no 'secret language' has ever taken more than two days to be broken by the kids.

Yaron... Of course there are many, many more too. But isn't the point so everyone will use the same one??? ehllooooo! :-)

Annie... I'm confused. are you the military brat or the kid of one?

cruisin-mom... Oy, never dare me to do something: ante, bread, corn, dirt, epee, food, good, hear, itch, joke, kiss, lisp, mint, nose, open, poop, quit, ripe, sink, tape, unit, vary, wipe, xray, yoke zoon. [!]

Jack... You give some people a centimeter and they take a kilometer!

matlabfreak... Oh, you can't just leave us hanging like that! ;-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 29, 2006 6:02:12 PM

Hey, Delta-Bravo, I was careful. I thought it would be less destructive than the eggnog...

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Nov 29, 2006 6:11:30 PM

Hate to break it to you babe... bread?! NOT SO MUCH a four letter word..... Perhaps BITE?! As in "bite me?!"

As to being "okay," [sighs, rolls eyes, sighs again] yes... I guess we are. Though I must admit I don't remember NOT knowing that there was a call-sign alphabet...just not knowing what all the words were. A little poetic license, librally applied, to make a better story?....

Posted by: zahava | Nov 29, 2006 6:50:06 PM

Heh... well, the thesis takes a bit of backing and filling, but it boils down to this:

NATO and the EU have been formed as mutual regional defense groups. They share many common interests, and are very interested in keeping interoperable military forces for *rapid* deployment to trouble spots (the genesis of the ERRF is a good thing to read up on to support this argument). Their missions are generally well-defined and give a great deal of leeway wrt ROE and the like. Member countries have strong incentives to maintain interoperability - just look at the US' nuclear weapons sharing program, NATO's Allied Command Transformation directorate, ERRF's mixed battalions, etc.

On the other hand, getting countries to commit troops to UN missions is like pulling teeth. The mandates are underfunded, incredibly slow, poorly planned/supported/executed, and allow for horrible communication between different units and up to the UN command structure. Rules of engagement are incredibly limiting, and troops are generally sent in after the UN has ignored/procrastinated an issue for too long, so it has already gone critical.

Civilian and military control are so mixed up that making intelligent decisions is nearly impossible. Examples abound - look at the UN discussions back in '94 during the Rwandan mess for a perfect case study.

Anywho, because the UN screws up their military commitments/solicitations so much, no one with a serious military is interested in donating troops to the missions (nor is there any way in which the UN can compel it, as opposed to the EU and NATO apparatus). This translates into a bunch of second-rate forces taking on UN jobs, most of which don't have the money or professionalism to follow arms interoperability standards.

This is one of the reasons why the UN will never have any real enforcement power, excepting when strong militaries with projection capability (ie, the United States) choose to go along with the UN's priorities.

*Shrugs* My actual post is likely to be much more organized/supported/clear, but you get the idea.


Posted by: matlabfreak | Nov 29, 2006 7:24:46 PM

ok so i have to share this.
(by the way i knew of these words, tho i don't have them all memorized)

As a child, I used to hear my mom on the phone when she needed to spell out our last name.
I can still hear even the tone of her voice...you know the "polite, I am talking to a stranger, telephone" voice.

My last name starts like this DeSi....

She would say:
'D', 'e', capital 'S' as in Sam, 'i'....

'S' as in Sam
in my mom's 'telephone' voice. I remember it so clearly, it flowed so smoothly; as if it were part of our name.

I have since found myself doing the very same thing... over the phone, in my 'polite telephone voice'.

Posted by: weese | Nov 29, 2006 7:51:34 PM

OK, I always thought A = Apple, and C = Cat, but I guess I'm confusing it with the code we used to learn English.

Posted by: Irina | Nov 29, 2006 8:06:32 PM

The post was good... but the comments were outstanding! :)

Posted by: val | Nov 29, 2006 8:31:35 PM

I usually have the same problem, coming up with different words to spell one simple word or some stock ticker. My biggest problem is when i am speaking Spanish and I use some Spanglish words, and the other guy goes QUE?? (What in Spanish).
your list is very helpful, i will keep it handy for those days my brain just does not function. I have to start working on the Spanish list because the ones i found on the internet have words that i would never use.

Posted by: David S | Nov 29, 2006 10:38:20 PM

OSS cah - thought there was an R as in Rechovot in there somewhere.....

Posted by: Iris | Nov 29, 2006 11:04:44 PM

Jack: Thank you for catching the reference. I knew I could count on you for 70s TV trivia. I loved that show.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Nov 29, 2006 11:46:01 PM

Zahava, you have quite a husband there - so bright and full of all this knowledge. : )

I have quite a few S and F and V's in my full name, so I am always prepare though I usually stay away from the military lingo and stick with the proper names.

S - as in Sam
F - as in Frank
V - as in Victor

That seems to do it.

Oh and don't forget N as in Nancy.

Posted by: Jaime | Nov 29, 2006 11:46:56 PM

Great post! I hear this at work all the time and find myself laughing when I shouldn't.

A - Altoid
B - Barefoot
C - Cigarette
D - Doodlebug


Thanks for the laughter and for the phonetic alphabet. I'll make copies and post them.

Posted by: Tim | Nov 29, 2006 11:49:18 PM

Just curious - do you remember how many mnemonic tricks you learn as a kid (or an adult) that you still use today? As for me, I still use my knuckles when I need to figure out how many days a month has. I was so excited to just learn one yesterday about table etiquette. That one is really going to come into good use - no more being embarrassed when I set the table when my inlaws are in town.

Posted by: jaime | Nov 29, 2006 11:54:11 PM

From Asterix and Obelix, in the Dutch version (and translated into English, because you do not read Dutch): T as in "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis" (Fear the Greeks, even bringing gifts).

It was a running gag.

Posted by: The Back of the Hill | Nov 30, 2006 1:50:30 AM

OSS-cah? VIK-tah? Could you be any more East Coast?

Posted by: Wrymouth | Nov 30, 2006 8:15:58 AM

rutimizrachi... Thanks for taking care of my shiny little baby while I was away in the salt mines.

Zahava... I hit the 'r' and 'e' keys at the same time. I meant 'bead'. Feeling a little superior are we? :-)

Matlabfreak... And all this time I was holding on to a far more complex thesis regarding the UN: They are just a bunch of doody-heads.

Weese... What a wonderful story to share. I could actually hear her saying it!

Irina... See, you learn something new every day here at treppenwitz! :-)

Val... That's usually the case. :-)

David S. ... Just so you know, the list I provided is used by Spanish speaking countries as well. :-)

Iris... The pronunciation guide is meant to standardize the way people from different places would say these already standard words.

Doctor Bean... Sorry I missed it. My TV tastes were rather narrow in the 70s. Mostly Gilligan's Island reruns, if memory serves.

Jaime... Whoops, Victor is both a proper name and part of the military list!

Tim... You need to seek out a better class of coworkers! My guess from your limited list is that there are a lot of pick-up trucks in the parking lot (not that there's anything wrong with that!). :-)

Jaime... Are you going to share this little trick?

The Back of the Hill... That was English? I need another cup of coffee! :-)

Wrymouth... I happen to be from New England, but I didn't write up the pronunciation guide... the Military did! :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 30, 2006 8:37:22 AM


I loved that show too. We used to run around the school yard doing our Squad 51 calls/impressions.

My TV tastes were rather narrow in the 70s. Mostly Gilligan's Island reruns, if memory serves.

My favorite episode of Gilligans Island was the one where they almost got off the island but didn't because Gilligan screwed up the professor's plan. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Nov 30, 2006 11:40:02 AM

I would imagine that the city alphabet mentioned by Toby would be difficult to use internationally. The example he listed, Jerusalem, isn't pronounced with a 'J' sound in Hebrew, it's pronounced with a 'Y' sound. I would imagine that issue would come up in a lot of languages because there are a whole bunch of places that are not called anything remotely similar in different languages. The other problem with those sorts of alphabets in general is that even though many of the world's languages use the Roman alphabet, they ascribe different sounds to different letters.

Posted by: Fern | Nov 30, 2006 11:20:12 PM

Sure (and btw, I learned an additional one today, that is related to it.)

I never remember which side and what goes together when laying down the silverware. But, the trick is Knife and Spoon each have five letters and so does Right. Fork has four letters as does Left. Viola.

The other trick is where to place a glass and a bread dish. If you take both hands and make an "ok" sign, the left side is shaped as a "d" (for drink) and the right is shaped as a "b" (for bread).

Posted by: jaime | Nov 30, 2006 11:21:48 PM

oops - I meant the 'b' is on the left and the 'd' is on the right.

Man, looks like I am still going to have trouble with the inlaws. :)

Posted by: jaime | Nov 30, 2006 11:24:45 PM

Using 2 OK signs is also a way for little kids to remember the difference between b and d. Hold up your two OK signs and imagine the word "bed" and you know which sound is written which way. Every time my Sweetie reads the wrong one, I remind her to "use her bed"

Posted by: Kiwi the Geek | Dec 12, 2006 9:36:25 AM

I used to be in the US Coast Guard Auxiliary as "boat crew" (the civilian arm of the US Coast Guard) and part of our training involved learning the phonetic alphabet. What's funny now is that when I'm talking with local cops, either doing writing research for a novel or as a block club leader, and they hear me spell something, they always ask, "Do you have law enforcement training?"


Posted by: Sheyna Galyan | Dec 27, 2006 11:20:49 PM

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In