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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) corruption of ‘alpha’, the first letter of the international communications alphabet

Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

When you have to clarify a troublesome word and fall back on the phonetic alphabet of Alpha, Bravo, Charlie to spell it out, the word you’re actually using in place of an A is Alfa, not alpha.

That’s because when this alphabet was first adopted in the 1950s by the International Civil Aviation Organization (an agency of the United Nations—not, despite how this alphabet is more commonly known, by NATO), an attempt was made to standardize the spellings and pronunciations as best as possible. So the potentially confusing ‘ph’ spelling of alpha was swapped for a more straightforward F, and for good measure the T at the end of Juliet was doubled, Juliett, lest any unwitting French users believe it to be unpronounced, as it is in words like bouquet, croquet and piquet. (That, of course, raises the question as to why the ‘ch’ in Echo wasn’t altered, but perhaps the ICAO didn’t see that as quite so big a deal...)

As widely used as the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie alphabet is today, however, it was not the first attempt to come up with a phonetic spelling alphabet for clarity over the airwaves. The very first internationally-adopted alphabet of this type was developed by the predecessor of the International Telecommunication Union in 1927. Comprising a mixture of city names and places alongside a handful of proper nouns and surnames (and, for some reason, the random word kilogramme?), it remained in use until the more favoured NATO system replaced it in the 1950s:

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

Even earlier still, when radio was still in its infancy, broadcasters began spontaneously adding clarifying empty syllables onto the ends of potentially ambiguous letters of the alphabet in the late 1800s. That led to a handful of inventive letter–sound combos like Ack (A), Emma (M), Pip (P), Esses (S), and Toc (T), some of which survived long into the twentieth century and are still found in the dictionary today. Indeed some of these early phonetic spellings went on to be officially adopted by the British Royal Navy during the First World War, when they were incorporated into the first complete (and unquestionably British) phonetic alphabet in 1917:

Apples, Butter, Charlie, Duff, Edward, Freddy, George, Harry, Ink, Johnnie, King, London, Monkey, Nuts, Orange, Pudding, Queenie, Robert, Sugar, Tommy, Uncle, Vinegar, Willie, Xerxes, Yellow, Zebra

Predating all of these, however, is one more communications alphabet worth noting.

Long before we had the technology to transfer our voices over great distances, we had the dits and dahs of Morse code. And perhaps as early as the American Civil War, this curious (but undeniably clever) alphabet was devised to help troops memorize the complex patterns of long and short tones the code comprised:

Against, Barbarian, Continental, Dahlia, Egg, Furiously, Gallantly, Humility, Ivy, Jurisdiction, Kangaroo, Legislator, Mountain, Noble, Offensive, Photographer, Queen Katharine, Rebecca, Several, Tea, Uniform, Very Varied, Waterloo, Exhibition, Youthful and Fair, 2-long 2-short

It’s not the most straightforward system (nor the most conventional of alphabets). But the idea here is that the pattern of syllables in these words match the patterns of the tones in Morse code.

So the word against reproduces the short-long [- –] pattern of the letter A. Barbarian matches the short-long-long-long [- – – –] pattern of B. It’s an ingenious idea, but regrettably this particular system was flawed. Not only does it run out of steam by the time it gets to Z (2-long 2-short is just a description of the Morse code Z, [- - – –]), but not all of these words correctly match their Morse equivalents. Given the syllabic pattern of legislator, for instance, you might expect L to be [– - – -], but it’s actually [–-––].

Perhaps for that reason, this system never truly caught on and was never officially adopted by telegraphers or the military, so it failed to have much influence on the other communications alphabets that would follow it.

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