Have you ever struggled to understand someone on the telephone? You are not alone. Ever since the start of long-distance voice communication, spelling alphabets have been used to distinguish between similar sounding letters such as ‘F’ and ‘S’. With different countries and organisations developing their own alphabets, it was not until 1969 that they were finally condensed into the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) official alphabet. Nevertheless, many of the words used more informally date back to those earlier versions.
S for sugar, F for Freddy
The lack of high frequencies on standard telephone lines makes it hard to distinguish an ‘F’ from an ‘S’ while rhyming letters like ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘G’, ‘T’ and ‘V’ are easily confused. Which word someone uses for a particular letter can depend on where they grew up. While most English people say F for Freddy after the British Royal Navy alphabet used in the First World War, American speakers are more likely to say Frank after the AT&T alphabet from the same period. Speakers from both countries, however, agree on G for George, even though the official ICAO code word is Golf.
M for mother, N for nobody
Popular choices over the years have been names and countries. If you find yourself spelling out words to someone over the telephone, don’t worry if you don’t know the official alphabet. As long as you pick an easily understandable word that starts with the letter you want to communicate there should be no problem.
The table below shows how spelling alphabets have evolved over the years:
|Symbol||1914 British Post Office||1917 AT&T||ICAO 1932||1941-1956 Joint US Army/Navy||ICAO 1969 to present|