The Origins of the International NATO Phonetic Spelling Alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta)

Simon Whistler of Today I Found Out explained the origins of the internationally used NATO phonetic spelling alphabet (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, etc.). This mapping onto letters of the English alphabet was developed to ensure that letters were not misidentified due how alike they sound, particularly during early radio and phone transmissions.

Due to static, distortion, and the tendency of these devices to cut off certain frequencies or the start of words, many sounds can become indistinguishable to the listener. For example, C, D, E, V, P, and Z [NOTE: “zee” in the American style] are often mistaken for one another, as are M and N; F and S; H and 8; and 5 and 9. The lack of visual cues when speaking over the telephone or radio only adds to the potential confusion.

Over the years, a number of codewords were used, but in 1956 NATO adopted the one with which we are most familiar in modern times.

If you have ever served in the armed forces or worked in the aviation industry, these words are most likely permanently seared into your brain. And even if you haven’t, you have probably heard them used in countless war movies and other places….Officially adopted by NATO in 1956, this alphabet has since become the de facto standard for militaries and civilian organizations around the world.

Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.