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The Phonetic Alphabet (Part I)

C as in Coelacanth?

by Marko Peric

Our alphabet is a rather haphazard collection of letters and sounds with much redundancy and confusion. Some letters can make several different sounds, others make exactly the same sounds as other letters. And half of our letters rhyme, meaning that if you've ever had to spell your name or address over a noisy phone line you've surely had to struggle to communicate effectively. Perhaps you've used words to spell, such as "A as in apple, B as in bronchitis," etc. Of course, coming up with a good word for a letter in a pinch isn't always easy. That's why there is a specific phonetic alphabet used by radio operators, pilots, and the military, because they can't afford accidental mistakes because of a miscommunication.

Of course, to use the phonetic alphabet effectively, one has to memorize it. Some of the word choices are better than others, though. And 26 makes for a reasonably long list. So here's part one of a Good/Bad/Ugly speed rating of the phonetic alphabet.

Alpha: Being the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and generally meaning first or dominant, as well as being the first five letters of the word alphabet, alpha is a Good choice to start the phonetic alphabet.

Bravo: We all know the word bravo as a cry of approval, but did you know that as a noun it can also mean a hired assassin? Of course, B as in bravo is better than A as in Assassin, but still, it might be a Bad choice.

Charlie: This one is heavily ingrained into popular culture because of the Vietnam War — the Viet Cong were abbreviated to VC, and then just shortened to the collective noun of Charlie. I'm constantly reminded of a joke from the first season of Last Comic Standing, in which a Vietnamese comedian jokes about dating the daughter of a Vietnam veteran: "What's your name, lad?" "Ah, um, Charlie — I mean Dat Phan!" You have to have seen it to get it, but it was a really Good joke.

Delta: It's a shape, an airline, it's a city, it's a Greek letter, it's a sorority, it's an elite military force, it's a geographical feature, it's a finite increment in a variable, it's the first name of an actress who was on Designing Women. Is there anything it can't do? You'd think that asking it to be part of the phonetic alphabet would be asking too much, but delta just gives and gives and gives. It has to be Good.

Echo: Toyota claims that nothing can stop an echo. You have to wonder if they took concrete walls into account? Those are good at stopping all manner of sounds as well as subcompact cars. But "Solid objects of significant mass can stop an echo" would be a really Bad slogan.

Foxtrot: The first of two dances in the phonetic alphabet, one has to wonder who came up with this one. Granted, the word has a unique sound, but ballroom dance just seems to be an unlikely, and Bad source of inspiration for an alphabet used heavily by the military.

Golf: The first of only two single syllable phonetic words, this one breaks up the established pattern and just seems too abrupt. Couldn't they have found a two syllable word that starts with G? Of course, there exists the possibility of confusing G with J, and that could get Ugly.

Hotel: And just like that, we're back on the pattern. There is a potential problem with this one, however, for French speakers, who would pronounce it O-tell. This is of course only a problem if you happen to deal with French speakers frequently, and think that 'otel is a real word. Considering that the French seem to never pronounce the H at the start of anything, it's all Good.

India: Of all the words on this list, India is the one I find myself forgetting most often. I'm not sure why, it's not like it's a strange word, but it just doesn't click in my mind. Perhaps they did not want a word that started with the long 'I' sound to avoid confusion with non English speakers or something. Of course, they didn't take that into account with Uniform. Ugly.

Juliet: This is somewhat of a difficult letter, given its tendency for sound confusion with G, and to a lesser extent with Y. But pairing it with Romeo was a stroke of genius. No longer are Romeo and Juliet confined to a bland existence of 11th grade literature classes and semi-veiled movie themes. Very Good.

Kilo: The vast majority of the planet uses the metric system for all weights and measures. Not the United States, though. For years they have steadfastly refused to switch over, in all but one area. For some reason whenever there is a large drug bust, the resulting seized narcotics are always measured by the kilo. "Authorities seized four kilos of cocaine with a street value of yada yada yada. . ." Seriously, have you ever heard of a pound of cocaine or heroin? What's up with that? As far as the actual rating, well, for helping the United States to mock the metric system by equating it with drugs, kilo is Ugly.

Lima: Are we talking the bean or the capital of Peru? It's an important distinction, because not only are we comparing a plant with a city of eight million people, they are pronounced in entire different ways. It's Lime-a versus Leem-a. It almost comes down to capitalization, because who is going to capitalize a bean? The only other word that leaps to mind which switches pronunciation with capitalization is polish/Polish. I suppose these are words you might not want to include in a speech, for risk of confusion, but then again, if you are giving a speech at the Peruvian embassy, and you're talking about beans, it was probably a Bad speech anyway.

Mike: Let's establish one thing first — I have no problem with the name Mike. I've worked with guys named Mike, I have friends and acquaintances named Mike — more than one of my best friends, in fact, are named Mike. I have nothing against the name. But as a part of the phonetic alphabet, it's just awful. Not only is it the second of just two single syllable phonetic words, there are like 20 common English words that rhyme with it, some of which are rather nasty insults. If they had gone with Michael, that would have been fine, but no, they had to make a Bad decision.

Read Part II of this article here.

The BNC

Curious George: A Quiet Day at Home

The Best of A Thousand Words

The Man with the Pink Bicycle

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