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

Paper:2 Me:0

Papercuts. Not one, but two papercuts – one on each hand. Right now, my pain level can be described as potentially pretty much around the grizzly-bear-mauling proportions experienced by Leonardo di Caprio/ Hugh Glass in The Revenant. You can watch the gut-wrenching scene here (3 min duration not for the faint-hearted). Fortunately though, I don’t have to find a horse carcass to recuperate in (another 3 min video not for those of a delicate disposition). This is a good thing as I busy myself wiping the trail of blood around my home whilst I bravely battle through the brain-fuddling agony.

Perhaps I should admit that my pain threshold is pitiful at the best of times (in direct contrast to my penchant for occasional overstatement). You may recall my 2015 foot injury which resulted in a trip to hospital A&E during which my dear friend Lola sat beside me giggling satanically at my predicament. I still haven’t entirely forgiven her for that (although we continue to be the best of friends), but am duly grateful to her for chauferring me around following that harrowing near-death experience. I’m happy to report that I made a full recovery from my broken fractured mangled mutilated dismembered pulverised seriously injured toes and am once again able to perform the perfect ballerina pirouettes and twirls on my tiptoes like I was able to before the incident (in my imagination).

But back to my current gash/wound/laceration. The researcher in me immediately started looking up scientific papers about this moribund experience. Of course, I have been beaten to the punch, as there are numerous papers and articles summarising research into it, including one disdainful project resulting in a model for measuring fear of pain (including papercuts on fingers). Fear of pain? Are they joking? What I feel is not fear – it is very, very real, very, very present and very, very intense, pukka papercut pain. More reassuringly, though, another brief article titled ‘Paper May Be the Unkindest Cut‘ reported that “The thought of it makes the strong tremble and the weak pass out.

Fortunately, I have not passed out from a papercut – yet! – although I almost do whenever I momentarily forget about having one and use hand sanitiser. Oh! the anguish, the torture, the utter tribulation of this mortal wound! As visions of my martyrdom flash before my eyes, I search valiantly for words to describe the degree of my suffering.


The Subjective Pain Scale [image source: https://remotemedicine.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/importance-of-pain-scale.html (click to open full size in new tab)]

There are many variants of the pain intensity scale, but the most common one, which is also used in hospitals across the world, is the Numeric Rating Scale (NRS-11). It is an 11-point scale (0-10) for patients’ self-reporting of pain in clinical settings. Known as the Subjective Pain Scale, I was amused to see an edited version of it floating around the internet. I share both versions here for your entertainment.


The Edited Subjective Pain Scale [image source: https://i.redd.it/gyyndb3xfowz.jpg (click to open full size in new tab)]

Please note that my current papercut-driven pain scale is hovering somewhere between Levels 9 and 10. Level 10 in the amended version of the scale states that it is “pain so intense that you will go to the internet and joke about it hoping that the absurdity of it all will make it more manageable” – hence this blog post.

NB: This post is meant as a tongue-in-cheek catalogue of my papercut woes today.  It is no way meant to be insensitive or disrespectful to those who are poorly, and particularly those suffering from chronic pain and illness. Good health is one of the greatest blessings on earth and its value can never be underestimated.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2018

Spurious correlations

A chance conversation with my two dear friends Tor and Sarah (who are massive football fans) brought my attention to a popular and bizarre theory making its rounds about the ‘Grim Reaper of Football.’ Apparently – and the statistics prove it – whenever Aaron Ramsey the Arsenal midfielder scores a goal, a celebrity or famous personality dies. Most recent evidence being the passing of David Bowie barely 24 hours after Aaron scored a goal. So strong is the correlation, that there have been numerous articles written (examples here, here and here) and even a Facebook page dedicated to discussing and dissecting the ‘Ramsey Effect‘ of poor Aaron who is understandably not amused.

After many minutes of giggles with Tor and Sarah though, conversation turned to how correlations can – and indeed, have – been created between the most inane occurrences.  I vividly recall how in one researcher development  workshop on data interpretation, I learnt about the ‘10 weirdest things linked to Autism.’ Among them, maternal factors which include getting an infection during pregnancy; not getting an infection during pregnancy; being pregnant near freeways and other dubitable factors:

Source: E.J. Willingham, “10 Weirdest Things  Ever Linked to Autism,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/09/04/10-weirdest-things-linked-to-autism/#8a581053fb1a

However, one of my all-time favourite questionable statistical relationships (aka spurious relationship) is that of per capita cheese consumption correlated with the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets. Yes! – apparently the CDC in America collects data on people who become tangled in their bedsheets. (Note to self: Must thank my boss for allowing me to manage more, ahem, robustly evidence-based research projects!)

I could, of course, go on and on about other entertaining correlations that have been developed over the years. However, as with any good idea, I have been beaten to the punch by an entire book being dedicated to the subject; I highly recommend ‘Spurious Correlations’ for a riveting and hilarious read. For now, I’ll leave you with this bemusing statistical visual of the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool correlated with the number of films that Nicholas Cage appeared in that particular year… oh dear!

Saneeya Qureshi © 2016



My airline safety video awards

As someone who travels frequently, having to listen to and watch inflight safety videos is one of the more mundane aspects of every journey. So when airlines take time to produce memorable and sometimes giggle-inducing videos, I am delighted. On the other hand though, there are always some that make me want to sleep even before the safety messages are over. Here are some honourable mentions of the belly-tickling, the heart-warming, the eyebrow-raising and the cringe-worthy:


  • The ‘Heck-even-I’d-be-needing-oxygen-if-I-were-in-such-close-proximity-to-Gerrard-Pique!’ Award goes to Qatar Airways and FC Barcelona:
  • The ‘Those-80s-hairstyles-need-to-watch-out-for-low-flying-airplanes’ Award:
  • The ‘Cringeworthiest-2005-to-2010-internet-memes’ Award:
  • The  mandatory ‘Long-Live-Betty-White’ Award:
  • The ‘Gosh-the-Dutch-have-patience-and-Delft-art-is-exceptional’ Award:
  • The ‘This-reminds me-of-home’ Award:
  • And finally, the ‘I-would-go-watch-a-football-match-just-to-see-this-safety-video’ Award:

Do you have any favourites? I’d love to hear about them.

And to all those with travel plans whether during this holiday season or in the future, I invoke upon you the traveller’s blessing:

May your luggage fit overhead,

your turbulence light,

and your middle seat empty! 

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015




“My hovercraft is full of eels”

February 21 is the UN-proclaimed International Mother Language Day. It is a day that has been commemorated since 2000, and represents the day in 1952 when Bangladeshi students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then-Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka. The Day promotes linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

This year, I find the day to be particularly significant, as the theme for 2015 is ‘Inclusive Education through and with Language – Language Matters.’ The theme relates to a cause close to my heart, and also my doctoral studies – inclusive education. The United Nations maintains that:

“Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

This statement made me pause to reflect on what I consider to be my own ethnic language. Although both my parents’ families are many generations removed from the Punjab area of the Northern Subcontinent, I have grown up in Kenya. I speak Swahili and English with my father; French, Urdu/Hindi and English with my mother; Swahili, English and Urdu/Hindi with my brother; and a mixture of Urdu/Hindi, English, Swahili, French and Punjabi with other family and friends.  My grasp of Punjabi – which should presumably be my mother tongue – is woefully lacking compared with my command over Urdu and Hindi.

Nevertheless,  I would like to think, that even though I cannot proudly say that I am fluent in my own mother language, my multilingual background and experiences mean that I posses a broader cultural awareness and tolerance. Indeed, I believe that this diversity has fed my hunger for discussion and knowledge about the unique linguistic heritage of others around me, which is in fact, evidenced through some of my posts on this blog.

Memrise, an online language-learning tool recently launched their celebration of the 2015 International Mother Language Day. Their aim is to “do justice to a celebration of the glory and diversity of human language by inviting submissions of a phrase that represents both the joys and laughter, and yet also the frustrations of trying to learn another language.” Their chosen phrase “My hovercraft is full of eels” made me guffaw when I explored the origins of this seemingly-bizarre phrase.

This phrase was first used in a sketch set in England about a badly translated English-Hungarian phrasebook from the British TV comedy show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. For the benefit of those who are unable to access youtube, a brief transcript of the relevant section is as follows:

A Hungarian tourist goes into a cigar shop looking for a box of matches, but doesn’t speak English, so he brings a badly-written phrasebook with him. When he tries to ask for matches, he ends up saying “My hovercraft is full of eels?”

Tourist: “Ah, ah, my hovercraft is full of eels?”
Clerk: “What?”
Tourist (points to matches): “My hovercraft is full of eels!”
Clerk (picks up matches): “Oh, this?”
Tourist: “Yes!”

And thus was born the comical “My hovercraft is full of eels.” Do feel free to contribute towards Memrise’s dream of creating the worlds’ largest collection of videos of people saying this rib-tickling phrase in their respective mother languages at this page.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year, commonly known as the Chinese New Year. The occasion is celebrated by those living in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia and Thailand, and countries across the world where there are large ethnic Chinese populations.

I am privileged to share an office with my dear friends Yumy from China, Josephine from Taiwan and Chau from Vietnam. I shall miss their cheery company tomorrow, as all three have the day off, celebrating with their respective families. This blog post is in honour of the interesting tidbits that they shared with me about this special day which they commemorate annually.

The phrase Gong Xi Fa Cai  (Mandarin: 恭喜发财) is commonly used as a wish for prosperity in the coming year. Celebrations continue until the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar. This year therefore, the last day of the Lunar New Year celebrations will be on  5th March 2015. Each of the fifteen days of celebration commemorates differing aspects of the festive occasion. More information about each day’s activities can be found at this Practical Day-by-Day Guide to Chinese Spring Festival 2015.

Chinese years are alloted animal zodiac names, known as Shēngxiào (Mandarin:  生肖), literally “birth likeness”. Each year relates to an animal and its reputed attributes according to a 12-year mathematical cycle. There exists a small degree of confusion about whether the 2015 Chinese zodiac animal represents a goat, a ram or a sheep. As a matter of fact, it is all three! The Mandarin word yang (Mandarin: 羊) refers to both goat and sheep, hence the ambiguity. According to the Rosetta Stone, in Japanese the sign is hitsuji (Kanji: 羊; Katakana or Hiragana:  ヒツジ),  which symbolises sheep. However, the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Mandarin character 未, is mùi. In Vietnamese, mùi is unequivocally identified with (the ‘goat’), and not with cừu (the ‘sheep’). Thus, năm mùi (the ‘year of mùi‘) is unmistakably the Year of the Goat.

Nevertheless, one indisputable certainty about the Lunar New Year, regardless of which Chinese zodiac year presents itself, is the exchange of the auspiciously red decorative envelopes containing money. These hong bao (Mandarin: 红包) are presented to each other, along with a wish for good fortune to abound, and wealth to increase in the new year.

So with this in mind, I take this opportunity to wish my dear Yumy, Josephine, Chau, their respective families, and all who celebrate the Lunar New Year:  Gong Xi Fa Cai, Hong Bao Na Lai! (Mandarin:恭喜发财,红包拿来!) “Wishing you a prosperous New Year, now please give me my red envelope!”

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

“My grandfather is as cool as Beyoncé”

I have just finished watching a TED Talk by Vincent Moon and Naná Vasconcelos, about ‘Hidden music rituals around the world’. In it, Vincent gives an eloquent exposition of how he is able to capture unique and emotive musical performances. These range from a powerful Sufi ritual in Chechnya to a hallucinogenic ayahuasca journey in Peru.

Through the lens that he brings to these vocal and visual displays, he says, “I just want to represent them in a beautiful light. I just want to portray them in a way that their grandchildren are going to look at their grandfather, and they’re going to be like, “Whoa, my grandfather is as cool as Beyoncé.” To substantiate this, Vincent’s talk was then followed by a captivating musical performance by the internationally-renowned Brazilian musician Naná Vasconcelos. I leave you with an sampling of his enthralling and culturally uplifting music, ‘Batuque nas Águas’:

“Batuque nas Águas” by Naná Vasconcelos

As a postscript, I must add that I have endeavoured to find a non-youtube link for this post, as I was reminded yesterday that youtube is still banned in a number of countries. Whilst, I find it disturbing to hear of such a useful site being censored, I must admit that I’m thrilled about my viewership coming from all over the world! Thank you for your feedback about my blog. Please keep your comments coming in as I strive to improve my writing.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2014

So I held the Olympic Torch today


I love Fridays – especially ones that end with a magnificent fireworks display to cap off an afternoon fête during which I get to have my picture taken holding the Olympic Torch (which, by the way, was much lighter than I expected). And yes – I (everyone!) was made to wear gloves before getting my mangy paws on the gilded flambeau as it tours the UK, before officially being lit in May 2012. Having been present at Sydney 2000, I can honestly say (my apologies, Aussies)  – if the fireworks I saw tonight are any indication, alongwith the pre-Olympic festivities, London 2012 is going to be a brilliant spectacle of sporting excellence and hospitality by the effervescent Londoners!

Saneeya Qureshi © 2011