Have you ever watched a war film and wondered, “What’s a Foxtrot? Who is Charlie? Did someone say Tango?”

These unusual words belong to a powerful code language known as the military alphabet. Servicemen and women use the military alphabet to improve clarity of communication, and sometimes as a form of slang.

The military alphabet consists of 27 code words. Each represents one letter of the english alphabet. For instance, “Alpha” means “A,” “Bravo” means B, and so on. Multiple code words often are combined to form words or expressions. For example, to say “dog” using military alphabet, one would say “Delta-Oscar-Golf.” None of the 27 code words sound alike, so there is no doubt what is said when spelling this way.

The US military also uses a special pronunciation for the numbers three, four, five and nine. This is to prevent mistaking these numbers for other letters or words.

NumberPronunciation
1One
2Two
3Tree
4Fower
5Fife
6Six
7Seven
8Eight
9Niner
0Zero

Is Military Alphabet a Phonetic Alphabet? People often refer to the military alphabet as a phonetic alphabet. This is actually a misnomer. A phonetic alphabets aids in the pronunciation of words. In contrast, the military alphabet is used to spell out words. Therefore, the military alphabet is actually known as a “spelling alphabet.”

Usage in the Armed Forces

You may have noticed that many english letters sound similar. For example, it’s common to mistake “B” for a “P,” “C” for “E,” and so on. For most of us, this sort of error might cause a mislabeled package shipment or a misspelled dinner invitation. However, for a soldier or fighter pilot, a misheard command or radio signal can mean life or death.

Radio operators in the armed services often rely on the military alphabet when sending codes or relaying important information. This ensures clear communication, regardless of background noise or radio interference.

In addition, men and women in the service often use the “alpha bravo charlie” alphabet as a form of shorthand or slang. Some popular expressions include:

  • Oscar-Mike (“on the move”): a unit is moving between positions
  • Charlie Mike (“continue mission”): a mission will continued following an interruption
  • Tango Delta (“target down”): the enemy was eliminated
  • Lima Charlie: (“loud and clear”): confirmation of received instructions

Usage Outside of the Military

The military alphabet has proven a very useful tool in civilian life as well. Here are just a few examples:

  • Commercial airlines across the globe use the alpha bravo charlie language to communicate flight coordinates and passenger names. Some airlines replace Delta (code for “d”) with an alternative word. This is to avoid confusion with Delta Airlines.  This is sometimes known as the Aviation Alphabet.
  • US police forces have developed their own version of the military alphabet: The Police Alphabet
  • Banks, traders and financial institutions often use the military alphabet when ordering large transactions over the phone

History of the Military Alphabet

Over the the first half of the 20th century, the branches of military used several different spelling alphabets. Then, in 1957, Nato and the US introduced a common spelling alphabet, which has remained in use by US and Nato forces ever since.

WW1-WW2

The earliest spelling alphabets came into use during the early twentieth century. AM radio technology enabled pilots to coordinate with ground control, but poor signal and radio interference caused frequent errors. To solve this problem, flight associations started using code words to represent easily confused letters.

During WWI, the British Royal Airforce developed the first complete spelling alphabet, the RAF radio alphabet.

Later, in 1927, the International Telegraph Union (ITU) developed a spelling alphabet for telegram communication. Over time, this system grew in popularity. By the start of WWII, most commercial airlines around the globe had adopted the ITU’s spelling alphabet.

The next major evolution took place in 1941, around the start of the Second World War II. At this time, the US introduced a standard spelling language across all branches of the armed forces. The Joint Army / Navy Phonetic Alphabet, also known as the “Able Baker Charlie” alphabet, can be heard in movies and TV shows dating from the 1950s. It has even made its way into modern cinematic depictions of WWII, such as Saving Private Ryan.

1957 – Present

In 1957, the U.S. armed forces and NATO adopted a common alphabet known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (IRSA), or the Nato Phonetic Alphabet for short. The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Authority) developed this system after years of careful research and testing. Before approving this IRSA, the ICAO trialled each code word in many common dialects. As a result, the IRSA has stood the test of time as an international standard.

The US government initially classified the IRSA as confidential, but soon later released it to the public.The IRSA remains in use today, and has only grown more popular with time. Today we have come to know this extraordinary code language  simply as the military alphabet.

Evolution of the Military Alphabet

LetterIRSA (1957-Present)Joint Army (WW2)ITU (1927-WW2)RAF (1913)Morse code
AAlphaAfirmAmsterdam Able. _
BBravoBakerBaltimoreBoy_ . . .
CCharlieCharlieCasablancaCast_ . _ .
DDeltaDogDenmarkDog_ . .
EEchoEasyEdisonEasy.
FFoxtrotFoxFloridaFox. . _ .
GGolfGeorgeGallipoliGeorge_ _ .
HHotelHowHavanaHave. . . .
IIndiaInt (Item)ItaliaItem. .
JJulietJigJerusalemJig. _ _ _
KKiloKingKilogrammeKing_ . _
LLimaLoveLiverpoolLove. _ . .
MMikeMikeMadagascarMike_ _
NNovemberNegat New YorkNan_ .
OOscarOption OsloOboe_ _ _
PPapaPrep ParisPup. _ _ .
QQuebecQueenQuebecQuack_ _ . _
RRomeoRogerRomaRush. _ .
SSierraSugarSantiagoSail. . .
TTangoTareTripoliTare_
UUniformUncleUpsalaUnit. . _
VVictorVictorValenciaVice. . . _
WWhiskeyWilliamWashingtonWatch. _ _
XX-RayX-RayXanthippeX-Ray_ . . _
YYankeeYokeYokohamaYoke_ . _ _
ZZuluZebraYokohamaZed_ _ . .

**Pronunciations by Wikipedia username Valeatory. Licensed under Creative Commons