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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a male given name; formerly, the letter X in the British naval alphabet

stained glass columns forming an X shape

Popular on Twitter this week was the fact that in the original phonetic alphabet used by the British Royal Navy during the First World War, the letter X did not stand for x-ray as it does today, but rather Xerxes.

Most of the earliest attempts at establishing phonetic alphabets (so as to clarify spellings over transmitted messages) date back to the first decade of the 1900s. Although these and several other systems like them had already been introduced by the start of the First World War (including one promoted by the British Post Office in early 1914), the alphabet officially adopted by the British Royal Navy in 1917 is often credited with being the first complete military phonetic alphabet ever introduced.

In its entirety, it was a somewhat endearing, and quintessentially British-sounding, list:

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

It was also, alas, somewhat short-lived. As telegraphy became an ever more important science in the early 1900s, phonetic alphabets in turn became more useful and more widespread, and just three years later a modified version of this 1917 alphabet was introduced in an attempt to standardize all the phonetic alphabets currently in use.

Ac, Beer, Charlie, Don,

Edward, Freddie, George,

Harry, Ink, Johnnie, King,

London, Monkey, Nuts,

Orange, Pip, Queen, Robert,

Sugar, Too, Uncle, Vic,

William, X-ray, Yorker, Zebra

Out went Xerxes, and in came x-ray. And when the International Civil Aviation Organization (an agency of the newly formed United Nations) set about developing a standard alphabet for use worldwide in the mid 1950s, it was x-ray that made the final cut and has remained in use ever since:

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie,

Delta, Echo, Foxtrot,

Golf, Hotel, India,

Juliet, Kilo, Lima,

Mike, November,

Oscar, Papa, Quebec,

Romeo, Sierra, Tango,

Uniform, Victor, Whiskey,

X-ray, Yankee, Zulu


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