Alfa, Bravo, Charlie: using the phonetic alphabet on phone calls

Diane Balogh profile image May 31, 2024 | 6 min read

We’ve all done it: spelled out difficult proper names, street addresses, business names, even complicated email addresses using common words that help the listener know what we’re saying, since many letters and words sound alike over the phone.

For example, the letters S and F get confused, as do M and N, and B and D, along with words such as tin, thin, fin and pin. So if you live on Mondegreen Street, perhaps you’re accustomed to spelling out the name over the phone by saying something like, “M as in Mary, O, N as in Nancy, D like dog, E like Eve, G as in George, R, E like Eve, E like Eve, N as in Nancy.”

This is helpful, though a bit cumbersome—and may still confuse the listener.

But there’s a foolproof solution: Use a phonetic alphabet. Phonetic alphabets are code words that replace letters and come in a variety of forms, including military alphabets and a police alphabet. That’s why, if you happen to hear someone on a military radio call out, “Whiskey Echo (apostrophe) Lima Lima (space) Romeo Echo November Delta Echo Zulu Victor Oscar Uniform Sierra (space) Alfa Tango (space) Zero Eight Zero Zero (space) Hotel Oscar Uniform Romeo Sierra Stop” what they’re actually saying is, “We’ll rendezvous at 0800 hours.”

It does take training.

Alfa Bravo Charlie: learning your radio telephony ABCs

A century ago, radio transmissions were an essential form of communication, and mistakes could have serious consequences. In wartime, the slightest communication error can cost lives.

Phonetic alphabets were developed for precisely this reason. With background noise, distortion and a fluctuating signal, all of which are common both on battlefields and in the air, clear communication is vital. The military alphabet (also known as the NATO alphabet) enables unambiguous transmission in demanding circumstances.

While it’s unclear when the first phonetic alphabet was created and by which country, the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command website says an early version appears in the 1913 edition of “The Bluejackets’ Manual.” This was just before the start of World War I.

In the 1920s, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) developed a version using city, state and country names to facilitate telegram communication.

In 1941, the U.S. adopted the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, dubbed the Able Baker alphabet because of the first two code words. And in 1943, the British Royal Air Force switched to this version, as well.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) came up with a version that incorporated sounds common to English, French and Spanish that went into effect in 1951 for civil aviation only, but is very similar to the alphabet currently used by NATO.

Since 1956, the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (IRSA) has been the official phonetic alphabet of NATO and all allied countries. It was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) after years of testing the code words in various common dialects.

Below is the phonetic alphabet chart as it’s evolved. Compare the similarities and differences across time and platforms:

Letter

U.S. Navy
1913

ITU
1927-WW II

Joint Army/Navy
1941-WW II

IATA
1951-1955

IRSA
1956-present

A

Able

Amsterdam

Able

Alfa*

Alfa*

B

Boy

Baltimore

Baker

Bravo

Bravo

C

Cast

Casablanca

Charlie

Coca

Charlie

D

Dog

Denmark

Dog

Delta

Delta

E

Easy

Edison

Easy

Echo

Echo

F

Fox

Florida

Fox

Foxtrot

Foxtrot

G

George

Gallipoli

George

Gold

Golf

H

Have

Havana

How

Hotel

Hotel

I

Item

Italia

Item

India

India

J

Jig

Jerusalem

Jig

Juliett*

Juliett*

K

King

Kilogramme

King

Kilo

Kilo

L

Love

Liverpool

Love

Lima

Lima

M

Mike

Madagascar

Mike

Metro

Mike

N

Nan

New York

Nan

Nectar

November

O

Oboe

Oslo

Oboe

Oscar

Oscar

P

Pup

Paris

Peter

Papa

Papa

Q

Quack

Quebec

Queen

Quebec

Quebec

R

Rush

Roma

Roger

Romeo

Romeo

S

Sail

Santiago

Sugar

Sierra

Sierra

T

Tare

Tripoli

Tare

Tango

Tango

U

Unit

Uppsala

Uncle

Union

Uniform

V

Vice

Valencia

Victor

Victor

Victor

W

Watch

Washington

William

Whiskey

Whiskey

X

X-ray

Xanthippe

X-ray

eXtra

Xray

Y

Yoke

Yokohama

Yoke

Yankee

Yankee

Z

Zed

Zurich

Zebra

Zulu

Zulu

*Alfa and Juliett are unconventional spellings to avoid confusion: alpha could be mispronounced Alp-ha by someone who doesn’t recognize the “ph” sound as “f” and Juliet might be pronounced as joo-lee-ay instead of ending with a hard T sound.

Phonetic alphabet for police: the language of law enforcement

If you’ve ever watched a popular TV police show, you’re no doubt familiar with some stereotypical law enforcement language (“Step away from the car…”). Like the military, the police have a radio alphabet that allows officers to communicate crisply and quickly on the same page. So if they need to alert all officers in the area about a fugitive in a stolen vehicle, they’ll bark out, “Eight, Robert, John, Victor, Zero, Seven, Three” for license plate 8RJV073. We can already hear the sirens.

The police alphabet keeps it simple, using first names for the majority of code words. While the police alphabet is pretty standard across the U.S., some police departments may have some slight differences. Here’s the LAPD Radio Alphabet published by the Los Angeles Police Department:

Letter: code word

A: Adam
B: Boy
C: Charles
D: David
E: Edward
F: Frank
G: George
H: Henry
I: Ida
J: John
K: King
L: Lincoln
M: Mary
N: Nora
O: Ocean
P: Paul
Q: Queen
R: Robert
S: Sam
T: Tom
U: Union
V: Victor
W: William
X: X-Ray
Y: Young
Z: Zebra

Customer service: how the phonetic alphabet helps call centers

What are the business applications of the phonetic alphabet? You can use this information to improve communication with your customers. The dramatic increase in remote and hybrid work has necessitated similar growth in virtual call centers to meet this evolving need. Your team’s responses may well determine if you keep your customers happy—and keep them as customers.

With virtual call centers, all operators need to work from the same script and the same practices so your business can provide optimal responses and track metrics. One of the most effective call center tips is to train your team to use the phonetic alphabet, and make this integral to your IVR best practices. In addition to giving your call center team a dependable method for correctly identifying exactly what the customer is saying, the phonetic alphabet reduces concerns about accents or language barriers.

Using a phonetic alphabet is going to help your call center deliver the kind of personalized customer journey your customers want: a quick resolution without having to repeat information.

Choose the phonetic alphabet that ties in best with your business. If you don’t want to use a military alphabet, you can customize it or one of the others to align with your brand. Just make sure the words you select are unique enough that there won’t be any confusion with a similar-sounding word. The whole point of phonetic alphabets is to make your customer service phone calls as clear as possible to avoid mistakes.

Lettered: how the phonetic alphabet supports vanity numbers

Another intriguing way to use the phonetic alphabet is with vanity phone numbers. Business phone numbers in letters are much harder to transpose and far easier to remember, such as 1-800-FLOWERS or 1-800-GoFedEx. And they’re simple for someone to call, since everybody has an alphabet on the phone and a phone on their person these days.

The challenge here is coming up with a phone number that expresses what your business is or does in seven letters and then finding a lettered phone number that is not already in use—and that is also unlikely to be misheard as a rhyming word or misspelled.

If you have an ice cream parlor, for instance, you might try something like 1-800-I-SCREAM, which would be “India, Sierra, Charlie, Romeo, Echo, Alfa, Mike” in the official NATO alphabet. It’s best to come up with several choices, and then see what’s available, easy to pronounce and not confusing.

Alfa Lima Lima (space) Tango Hotel Echo (space) Bravo Echo Sierra Tango!

book your consultation today image

Learn more about how Ooma Office can help your business.

Talk to one of our Ooma Office experts today!
CONNECT WITH US

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

866-573-0707

The Ooma Office Logo
Thank you
Learn how ooma can help - consultation image

Learn more about how Ooma Office can help your business.

Just call 877-621-0515 or click this to CHAT. Or, fill out this form and someone will reach out to you shortly.

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error
Thank you

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

If you’d like to chat with us right away, just give us a call or start an online chat!

Popup images

Let’s talk!

One of our knowledgeable representatives is standing by to provide recommendations and help you get started. Just call 877-621-0515 or click this CHAT button. Or, fill out this form and someone will reach out to you shortly.

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

We’ll talk shortly!

To get to know you better and help you, could we ask a few more questions?

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error
Sepcial Offer

Get a Special Offer Today

Call 877-621-0515 today to learn more.

Offer expires 10/10/23

Request Consultation

Fill out the form and representative will contact you soon.

Alternatively, call us at 877-353-5185 or CHAT to connect with our sales team directly.

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

We’ll talk shortly!

To get to know you better and help you, could we ask a few more questions?

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

If you’d like to chat with us right away, just give us a call or start an online chat!

Drive your business forward with Ooma VoIP Phone Systems

Here’s why businesses choose Ooma:

  • Save Money: Cut your monthly phone bills. As low as $19.95/user/month.
  • Keep Your Number: Transition easily without changing your phone number.
  • Seamless Integrations: with many platforms and applications

#1 rated phone system for business by PCMag.

Get Your Quote

You can also reach out to our sales team directly by calling 877-353-5185 or initiate CHAT with us online.

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

We’ll talk shortly!

To get to know you better and help you, could we ask a few more questions?

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

If you’d like to chat with us right away, just give us a call or start an online chat!

Unlock over 50+ features with Ooma Office

Starting at $19.95/user/month.

  • Keep Your Phone Number
  • 30-Day Risk-Free Guarantee
  • Tailored Solutions for Your Business Needs
  • Seamless Integrations

#1 rated phone system for business by PCMag.

CALL US AT: 877-353-5185

Get Your Quote

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

We’ll talk shortly!

To get to know you better and help you, could we ask a few more questions?

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

If you’d like to chat with us right away, just give us a call or start an online chat!

Savings up to 50% today with Ooma Office.

Starting at $19.95/user/month.

#1 rated phone system for business by PCMag.

Request Consultation

Fill out the form and representative will contact you soon.

Alternatively, call us at 877-353-5185 or CHAT to connect with our sales team directly.

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

We’ll talk shortly!

To get to know you better and help you, could we ask a few more questions?

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

If you’d like to chat with us right away, just give us a call or start an online chat!

Drive your business forward with Ooma VoIP Phone Systems

Here’s why businesses choose Ooma:

  • Save Money: Cut your monthly phone bills. As low as $19.95/user/month.
  • Keep Your Number: Transition easily without changing your phone number.
  • Seamless Integrations: with many platforms and applications

#1 rated phone system for business by PCMag.

Get Your Quote

You can also reach out to our sales team directly by calling 877-353-5185 or initiate CHAT with us online.

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

We’ll talk shortly!

To get to know you better and help you, could we ask a few more questions?

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

If you’d like to chat with us right away, just give us a call or start an online chat!

Unlock over 50+ features with Ooma Office

Starting at $19.95/user/month.

  • Keep Your Phone Number
  • 30-Day Risk-Free Guarantee
  • Tailored Solutions for Your Business Needs
  • Seamless Integrations

#1 rated phone system for business by PCMag.

CALL US AT: 877-353-5185

Get Your Quote

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

We’ll talk shortly!

To get to know you better and help you, could we ask a few more questions?

By clicking below you expressly agree to and acknowledge the statements set forth in this
link. By submitting your contact information, you are giving express written consent to receive on your telephone, mobile or other electronic device auto-dialed, pre-recorded, artificial or other automated telemarketing calls or texts (SMS & MMS) from Ooma, its marketing partners, or third parties acting on Ooma’s behalf, even if your number is a on a corporate, state or federal Do Not Call (DNC) list. Carrier fees may apply. Consent is not a condition of purchase. It also indicates that you agree to Ooma’s Privacy Policy.
Fix error

Thank you!

An Ooma Office Sales Representative will be in touch shortly.

If you’d like to chat with us right away, just give us a call or start an online chat!

Savings up to 50% today with Ooma Office.

Starting at $19.95/user/month.

#1 rated phone system for business by PCMag.