A vintage rotary phone.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Ten years ago I had a complex trip to organize that required lining up several flights on very tight deadlines. I needed some help figuring it all out, and so I visited a travel agent.

As he talked on the phone with who-knows-who, I noticed that he read off booking references using words to stand in for letters: “Alpha” for “A, “Bravo” for “B”, and so on. I was impressed that this travel agent was savvy to this obscure language, because I had only heard it used before by the US military in films and shows.

Through exposure to film, everyone knows the first few:

  • Alpha
  • Bravo
  • Charlie
  • Delta

But then it gets tricky:

  • Er, Ebola?
  • Foxy Freud
  • Geronimo!
  • Something with H. Hold! No, I didn’t mean for you to hold. I just meant… Ah, hell, they put me on hold. I should’ve just said “hell” to begin with.
  • “I” as in: I can’t think of a word that starts with “I”.

I was in a conversation with a support person awhile back, and needed to tell them my device’s serial number. For the life of me, I couldn’t get them to understand what I saying:

“The first letter is an N,” I said.

“An M?” he replied.

“No, not an M. It’s an N.”

“That’s what I said: M.”

“N! As in… let me think of a word. Nice.”

“OK, got it. M, as in mice.”

Exasperated, I did a quick search and found the list of words that travel agent — and countless actors pretending to be marines — have used. It’s not that obscure after all. It’s called the NATO phonetic alphabet and runs thus:

Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu

Just copy the alphabet above to your notes and use it as needed.

This system also proposes alternate pronunciations for numbers. So instead of “nine” for 9, you’re supposed to say “niner”. I’ve never found numbers to be much of a problem unless the line is really bad.

But if you think that might be useful, or you’re just high-minded about your use of international standards, you can bookmark the following handy image (courtesy of Wikipedia), which provides pronunciation for both letters and numbers:

A final advantage of using this alphabet on your calls with support staff is the pleasure of sounding world-wise. When you rattle off a few of these while on the phone with someone, you can almost hear their eyebrow arch.

Or maybe it’s just their eyes rolling.

Image credits.

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