Do you know the code?


Alfa Romeo Foxtrot. Hear this and you may be reminded of the opening of a particularly bloody Oliver Stone film or else fear there is a new silly pop song out of Norway. Neither, however, would be correct. As odd as it seems, these words and their partners are part of a code to help reduce miscommunication across cultures.

Commonly known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, the 26-word code was created in the 1950s as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. Each letter of the code represents a letter of the English alphabet. So if you were trying to spell the word Kuwait to someone over the telephone, you would say – Kilo, Uniform, Whiskey, Alfa, India, Tango – to represent the letters K-U-W-A-I-T.

After years of living abroad, I often use the code when trying to tell someone my name over the telephone. Though not exactly uncommon, my last name is not widely known and in Kuwait can lead to lengthy episodes of confusion. So rather than repeating it three, four or 20 times, I go with the easier NATO code, ‘Echo-Tango-Hotel…’.

There’s a rub, however. It only works if the person you are speaking with is also familiar with the code. Travel agents, hotel reservation clerks, airline agents almost always know the code. Most people who have served in the military will know it, as well diplomatic personnel, most international academics and many journalists, photojournalists and people who travel often.
But the guy taking your fast food order over the phone probably won’t have heard of it. Luckily for me, there is Talabat, Carriage and the convenient fact that few people will ask your name. Typically they only need your address.
Still, it can come in handy when trying to give someone an email address or confirming an airline reservation over the phone.

I’ve even used it when talking with other native English-speakers. English is now a global language and there are various English accents and dialects. Differing pronunciations can still result in misunderstandings even among those with a similar linguistic background. So the next time you hear, ‘can you repeat that?’

By Jamie Etheridge

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