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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 most common alphabets are shown below, from A to Z.

NATO WWII (US) WWII (UK) LAPD
AlphaAbleAble/AffirmAdam
BravoBakerBakerBoy
CharlieCharlieCharlieCharlie
DeltaDogDogDavid
EchoEasyEasyEdward
FoxtrotFoxFoxFrank
GolfGeorgeGeorgeGeorge
HotelHowHowHenry
IndiaItemItem/InterrogatoryIda
JulietJigJig/JohnnyJohn
KiloKingKingKing
LimaLoveLoveLincoln
MikeMikeMikeMary
NovemberNanNab/NegatNora
OscarOboeOboeOcean
PapaPeterPeter/PrepPaul
QuebecQueenQueenQueen
RomeoRogerRogerRobert
SierraSugarSugarSam
TangoTareTareTom
UniformUncleUncleUnion
VictorVictorVictorVictor
WhiskeyWilliamWilliamWilliam
X-RayX-RayX-RayX-Ray
YankeeYokeYokeYoung
ZuluZebraZebraZebra

In addition, if the NATO system is being used, expect the digit 9 to be pronounced "niner".

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".

Examples of Military Alphabet include:


Fox Item Love Mike

  • Flight Of The Intruder uses this for a bit of a Genius Bonus: A character uses "Alpha Mike Foxtrot[1]" 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.
  • 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.

Lima India Tango Echo Romeo Alpha Tango Uniform Romeo Echo

  • Biggles uses the now less well known World War One 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 ohers.

Mary Union Sam Ida Charlie

  • One of The Bloodhound Gang's many Intercourse with You songs is named "Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo".

Roger Able Dog Item Oboe

 "The phonetic alphabet version of M is not 'muh'!"

Tare Easy Love Easy Victor Item Sugar Item Oboe Nan

  • Archer 's inability to use this creates a Crowning Moment of Funny in "Skytanic". Seriously, Mancy?
  • The actives in Dollhouse are all named from it.
    • Well, the actives at the Los Angeles branch. The ones at the Washington DC branch are named after Greek gods, suggesting that each branch uses a different scheme.
  • A The Simpsons episode 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.
  • Being centered around the Air Force, Stargate SG-1 natural 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.
  • 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.

(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.

  • 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.

Victor India Delta Echo Oscar Golf Alpha Mike Easy Sierra

  • 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.
    • In Half-Life: Opposing Force, one of the levels is named "Foxtrot Uniform", which is an acronym for "Fucked Up".
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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 (the fourth game uses Greek letters).
  • 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.

William Easy Baker Charlie Oboe Mike Interrogatory Charlie Sugar

  • 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).

Narration: "Charlie Foxtrot" is a euphemism for "this operation is not going quite as we'd hoped." A Charlie Foxtrot is never pretty.

Robert Edward Adam Lincoln Lincoln Ida Frank Edward

  • 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.
    • Which shows why you shouldn't take reporting names from the enemy's language: the Russian word for shark is the Russian name and the reporting name for two different kinds of sub. To be precise, "Akula" is the NATO word for a certain class of fast-attack sub, and the Russian word for what NATO calls the "Typhoon"-a gigantic ballistic-missile submarine. Since these two are completely different in size, purpose, and ability (the first is very good at killing ships and other subs, but doesn't do much to anything outside of the water. The second kills continents, with a main armament of 20 MIRV-equipped nuclear missiles in addition to more than a few antiship torpedoes of its own. The first is a ninja, renowned for being silent and invisible, waiting for the opportunity to blow your ship out from under you. The second a Husky Russkie: big, brash, and daring you to make something of it.), confusing one for the other can cause significant problems in threat identification.
  • The Viet Cong 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 certian 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" 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).
  • 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.
    • Some time before, another version was used in the Russian Navy, consisting of old pre-revolutionary names of Cyrillic letters: Az, Buki, Vedi and so on.
      • It is still used there, and flag signals are still marked by these. Other services also use it sometimes.

Notes

  1. "Adios, Mother Fuckers"
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