NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Delta, Oscar, Yankee, Lima, Echo’ Sierra _ Sierra, Papa, Alpha, Charlie, Echo – Doyle’s Space

I’m on the phone at the pharmacy and people are trying to spell their names, or needed medications, and using a phonetic alphabet, basically making up a new one for each letter, like “C” CAT, “E” Elephant, or “P” Pneumonia. I thought a refresher on the proper usage would be in order.

NATO phonetic alphabet is the most widely used set of clear code words for communicating the letters of the Roman alphabet, technically a radiotelephonic spelling alphabet. To create the code, a series of international agencies assigned 26 code words acrophonically to the letters of the Roman alphabet, with the intention of the letters and numbers being easily distinguishable from one another over radio and telephone, regardless of language barriers and connection quality.

To create a phonetic alphabet, you simply replace the letter that you want to say with a word that starts with the same letter, a concept which is called acrophony. For example:

‘C’ can be replaced by ‘Charlie’.
‘G’ can be replaced by ‘Golf’.
‘O’ can be replaced by ‘Oscar’.

This alphabet is used by the U.S. military and has also been adopted by the FAA (American Federal Aviation Administration), ANSI (American National Standards Institute), and ARRL (American Radio Relay League).

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), also called the North Atlantic Alliance, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 30 member states – 28 European and two North American. Established in the aftermath of World War II, the organization implemented the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington, D.C., on 4 April 1949. NATO is a collective security system: its independent member states agree to defend each other against attacks by third parties. Prior to World War I and the development and widespread adoption of two-way radio that supported voice, telephone spelling alphabets were developed to improve communication on low-quality and long-distance telephone circuits.

The first non-military internationally recognized spelling alphabet was adopted by the CCIR (predecessor of the ITU)[1] in 1927. The experience gained with that alphabet resulted in several changes being made in 1932 by the ITU. The resulting alphabet was adopted by the International Commission for Air Navigation, the predecessor of the ICAO, and was used for civil aviation until World War II.

It continued to be used by the IMO until 1965. Some standards can be found in everyday civilian and military life. “Bravo Zulu”, typically signaled with naval flags on ships at sea and meaning “well done” is also commonly used in written communication by the military, for example by replying “BZ” to an email. Another standard – semaphore – inspired the peace sign. The symbol is a combination of the letters “N” and “D” (for nuclear disarmament).

Miscommunication issues can occur due to a variety of reasons, such as because you have bad reception on your phone because you’re talking in an area with a lot of background noise, or because you’re talking to someone who has a strong accent that you’re not used to. Such issues are especially frustrating and problematic if you’re trying to communicate an exact term, such as a name, a street address, or a serial number. Phonetic alphabets can facilitate communication in such situations, and reduce the likelihood of miscommunication issues, by helping you spell out exact terms in a way that is intelligible to listeners regardless of the circumstances.

This can be valuable, for example, if you’re talking to tech support, or if you’re giving critical information to emergency services. In fact, the NATO alphabet is so effective that there have been calls for using it among medical professionals, where accurate communication can be a matter of life and death.

  1. The International Telecommunication Union is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for many matters related to information and communication technologies. It was established on May 17, 1865, as the International Telegraph Union, making it the first international organization. [Back]

Further Reading


Military Alphabet
Amherst Walkie Talkie Centre
Ring Central

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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