Y for Yak and other vagaries of the phonetic alphabet

The following exchange is a true story of a conversation between myself and a Boots helpline member of staff (following what was admittedly a long work day the other evening):

Me: (Having to spell my name) So that’s ‘S’ for Sierra, ‘A’ for Alpha, ‘N’ for November, ‘E’ for Echo, ‘E’ again for Echo, ‘Y’ for… (momentary pause as I desperately searched the recesses of my brain)… ‘Y’ for Yak, ‘A’ for… ”

(nervous interruption)

Call Centre rep: Sorry ma’am, I didn’t get the last one.

Me: Oh, that was ‘Y’ for….. (searching my foggy brain again for something coherent to spell the letter ‘Y’)Yucatan.

Call Centre rep: (befuddled silence… clears his throat and then asks in an almost strangled whisper) Orangutan?

Me: (Horrified bemusement at the turn this conversation has taken) No! Not ‘O’! I mean ‘Y’! ‘Y’ for You…or Yoda

Call Centre rep: (after another pause, in a pained voice) Sorry Ma’am, could you start spelling your name again from the beginning please?

Me: Oh dear, I’m sorry, there’s someone at the door (there wasn’t). I’ll have to call back later. (Put phone down in disbelief and self-disgust, and then immediately recall that it’s ‘Y’ for Yankee)..


NATO phonetic alphabet, codes and signals image source: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_150391.htm (click to open full-size image in new tab)

I had to learn the NATO phonetic alphabet by heart during my years as a trainer with the Northamptonshire Police Force. It was particularly important during the scenario-based assessments that we conducted for students on the Police and Criminal Justice Courses and the Thames Valley Police Specials and regular Force recruits. It was good fun and serious business then, so I was in top form for the duration of my job, from which I progressed in 2015.  However, it is now evident that my recent lack of practice has made my recall of the various letters and corresponding nouns quite rusty.

The above-reported interaction with the poor, harassed call centre chap compelled me to google the NATO phonetic alphabet to review some other letters that I can’t seem to easily recall (‘Q’ for Quango, anyone?). Imagine my surprise when I read on good ol’ Wikipedia that all of the letters – not just the ‘troublesome’  ones – have been through vast and varied iterations before reaching their current noun words of reference. I have illustrated a condensed version of the timeline below for your shared amazement (and vindication at not being able to properly recall the appropriate noun when so required):

Timeline in development of the ICAO/ITU-R radiotelephony spelling alphabet
Letter 1920 UECU[32] 1947 (Atlantic City) International Radio Conference[44] 1946 ICAO Second Session of the Communications Division (same as Joint Army/Navy)[24] 1949 ICAO code words[24] 1959 (Geneva) Administrative Radio Conference code words[48]
A Argentine Amsterdam Able Alfa Alfa
B Brussels Baltimore Baker Beta Bravo
C Canada Casablanca Charlie Coca Charlie
D Damascus Danemark Dog Delta Delta
E Ecuador Edison Easy Echo Echo
F France Florida Fox Foxtrot Foxtrot
G Greece Gallipoli George Golf Golf
H Hanover Havana How Hotel Hotel
I Italy Italia Item India India
J Japan Jerusalem Jig Julietta Juliett
K Khartoum Kilogramme King Kilo Kilo
L Lima Liverpool Love Lima Lima
M Madrid Madagascar Mike Metro Mike
N Nancy New York Nan (later Nickel) Nectar November
O Ostend Oslo Oboe Oscar Oscar
P Paris Paris Peter Polka Papa
Q Quebec Quebec Queen Quebec Quebec
R Rome Roma Roger Romeo Romeo
S Sardinia Santiago Sail/Sugar Sierra Sierra
T Tokio Tripoli Tare Tango Tango
U Uruguay Upsala Uncle Union Uniform
V Victoria Valencia Victor Victor Victor
W Washington Washington William Whiskey Whiskey
X Xaintrie Xanthippe X-ray ? X-ray
Y Yokohama Yokohama Yoke Yankey Yankee
Z Zanzibar Zurich Zebra Zebra Zulu

Table source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO_phonetic_alphabet (with hyperlinked references to Wikipedia endnotes left as per original table)

Reviewing the table above I’m saddened to see that they seem to have taken out some of the best ones like G for Gallipoli, J for Jig, O for Oboe, P for Polka, T for Tare, X for Xaintrie, X for Xanthippe and the ‘loveliest’ of them all – L for Love!  Some of them seem almost on par with the utterly hilarious Michael Mcintyre’s spellings of ‘F’ for Fandango and ‘G’ for Gnome (a 3:45min youtube video).

But coming back to my predicament, on the plus side, at least I have now reviewed my phonetic alphabet again. And the next time I have to spell my name for someone, I’ll be able to use either Yokohama, Yoke and Yankee instead of Yak, Yucatan, You and Yoda!

To the poor call centre chap somewhere out there, who may still be reeling from the trauma of having to unravel the vagarious spelling of my name, I am Sardinia-Ostend-Roma-Roger-Yoke!

Saneeya Qureshi © 2018

One thought on “Y for Yak and other vagaries of the phonetic alphabet

  1. Haha. A delightful piece! I’m also at my wits end when on the spot I’ve to name a word when spelling out something for someone, especially over the phone. 😉


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