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Introduction to the NATO Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic language – also known as the 'spelling alphabet' or the NATO phonetic alphabet—is used by professional communicators like the police, military and other emergency and armed forces. It is used to identify letters precisely when communicating initials, abbreviations or the spellings of words. Most laypeople will be familiar with it from trying to spell their name or address with a customer service worker. 

It was originally developed in the 1920s by the International Civil Aviation Organization and subsequently adopted by NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in 1956 among other significant global and national bodies covering telecommunications, maritime, and aviation.

The NATO phonetic alphabet is a useful reference for language and communications training and study. Different versions exist – however, this is the original major standard and still the most widely used.

The NATO phonetic alphabet used for confirming spelling and words should not be confused with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) used by linguist to confirm or analyse pronunciation and word sounds. The IPA is far more complicated, and as well as by linguists, is utilised by speech therapists, language teachers, etc.

Uses – Personal and Professional

When used professionally by the police, military, or other governmental organisation in relaying abbreviations or letter codes, such as registrations, only the corresponding words are stated. For example, a registration or call sign of GTW would be stated as "Golf Tango Whisky". 

In less formal use, for example by customer service telephone staff, communications tend to give the letters and clarify with each corresponding alphabet word e.g. ‘G, Golf; T, Tango; W, Whisky,’ or ‘GTW, Golf Tango Whisky.’ The name John would be communicated as 'J: Juliet, O: Oscar, H: Hotel, N: November' or just, 'John – Juliet, Oscar, Hotel, November'. If possible, request they confirm your spelling. 

NATO Phonetic Alphabet (Spelling Alphabet)

Used by communicators around the world to clarify letters and spellings. See the full alphabet below:

  • A - Alfa
  • B - Bravo
  • C - Charlie
  • D - Delta
  • E - Echo
  • F - Foxtrot
  • G - Golf
  • H - Hotel
  • I - India
  • J - Juliet
  • K - Kilo
  • L - Lima
  • M - Mike
  • N - November
  • O - Oscar
  • P - Papa
  • Q - Quebec
  • R - Romeo
  • S - Sierra
  • T - Tango
  • U - Uniform
  • V - Victor
  • W - Whisky
  • X - X-ray
  • Y - Yankee
  • Z - Zulu

As mentioned earlier, there are other versions of the alphabet, but the NATO one above is the original and most widely used.

Appendix: the Cockney alphabet

For amusement only. Not used by any important global standards organisations and certainly not recommended for use in confirming spellings, letters or words—it only confuses people!

Again, there are different versions of this. Its origins are uncertain, most probably evolving organically in Cockney London in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

The alphabet is based on a child-like alphabet (A for Apple, etc), replacing the correct words to form puns. Typically the alphabet would be spoken or written with dropped first-letters wherever appropriate, as in 'ay for 'orses.

  • A for horses (hay for horses)
  • B for mutton (beef or mutton)
  • C for miles (see for miles, although 'Seaforth Highlanders', an old Sottish regiment, was an early popular alternative)
  • D for dumb (deaf or dumb - ironically a correct word for the letter D)
  • E for brick (heave a brick)
  • F for vescence (effervescence)
  • G for police (chief of police)
  • H for retirement (age for retirement)
  • I for an eye (eye for an eye)
  • J for oranges (Jaffa oranges)
  • K for restaurant (cafe or restaurant)
  • L for leather (hell for leather)
  • M for sis (emphasis)
  • N for lope (envelope)
  • O for the wings of a dove (a song)
  • P for relief (pee - urinate - for relief)
  • Q for a bus (queue for a bus)
  • R for bitter (half a bitter - beer)
  • S for you (as for you)
  • T for two (tea for two)
  • U for me (you for me)
  • V for la France (Vive la France)
  • W for a quid (double you a quid - a pound - a gambling term)
  • X for breakfast (eggs for breakfast)
  • Y for husband (wife or husband)
  • Z for breezes (zephyr breezes)

Other variations include:

  • C for Th' Highlanders (Seaforth Highlanders - an early Scottish military regiment)
  • D for mation (defamation)
  • I for a beautiful girl (eye for a beautiful girl)
  • M for plums (Emva plums)
  • N for mation (information)
  • P for a penny (pee for a penny)
  • Q for a pee (queue for a pee [to urinate])
  • R for mo (half a mo')
  • R for Askey (Arthur Askey, 1900-1982, popular diminutive bespectacled chirpy-chappy English comedian/actor/variety performer)
  • S for Costello (Esther Costello - a 1957 film)
  • S for Rantzen (Esther Rantzen, English TV presenter/journalist and chief founder/pioneer of the now globally replicated Childline charitable organization for young people)
  • Z for the sake of effect (said for the sake of effect)

See also