We’ll Always Have ‘Charlie’

Speaker's Corner: In the spirit of global misunderstanding, Jerry V. Haines reveals the worst phonetic alphabet ever

06.20.07 | 9:13 PM ET

alphabet lettersAs if the English language weren’t distressing enough with its irregular verbs and perverse spellings, several letters of our alphabet sound confusingly similar. That’s why we struggle to find ways that might clarify spelling of easily misheard words: “B…  that’s B as in boy, not D as in dog….’” 

The problem for travelers is that not everyone recognizes “boy” or “dog,” and some people may have trouble pronouncing them. The U.S. military grappled with this problem in the 1950s. Our armed forces had developed a uniform phonetic alphabet using simple, direct words they thought everyone could recognize, even on a noisy radio circuit: “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy….”

But foreign pilots—people from exotic lands where they pronounce Q’s like K’s and where they don’t even have W’s or J’s—complained that these words were difficult. So we sacrificed stalwart Able and Baker in the interests of global understanding—and got the International Phonetic Alphabet. Now we say, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie (at least they didn’t fire good old Charlie), Delta, Echo….”  The supreme indignity was giving up “Roger” for the effete “Romeo.” 

But consider the mischief had other words been chosen. Here, for your consideration, is the World’s Least Helpful Phonetic Alphabet (a work still in progress):

A) Are
B) Beady
C) Cue
D) Django (helpful only to jazz guitar aficionados).
E) Eye
F) Fiji
G) Gneiss
H) Honorable
I) Ian
J) Jeans
K) Knees
L) Llama (you’d use the authentic Spanish “y” pronunciation, of course)
M) Mnemonic
N) Niece
O) Oedipus
P) Pneumonia
Q) Quay
R) I don’t have a good example of a confusing “R.” Maybe you could roll it, as in “Rrroberrrt Burrrns.”
S) Sea
T) Teepee
U) Urn
V) Apparently a V is always a V, although my dictionary says that Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, is pronounced “fah-DOOTS.” And any excuse to say “fah-DOOTS” can’t be a bad thing.
W) Why
X) Xerxes
Y) You
Z) Ziti

Nominations are still being accepted.

This list is offered not only as an excuse to sow confusion, but as an example of how we come to take for granted that everyone knows what we know. How hard can learning English be, we wonder—we’ve never had any problem with it. 

But foreign travel can explode our assumptions, particularly when the shoe (scarpa/chaussure/zapato) is on the other foot (piede/pied/pie). In Italian, for example, the audible difference between a baby’s cradle (culla) and an insult that will get you punched in the nose (culo) is slight. To American ears, cavolo and cavallo sound remarkably similar, and both may be found on Italian menus: One is cabbage; the other, horse meat.

In Italy a casino is a gambling house only if you emphasize the final syllable. Pronounce it the way we do in America, and it’s a bordello. If you get caught in a raid on the latter, you can always blame the hearing of the cab driver who brought you there.

Travel makes you smarter because travel makes you humble.

Photo by Gaetan Lee, via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Jerry V. Haines is an attorney in Washington, DC who also writes about travel and dining for a variety of media and teaches writing in the Arlington, Virginia public schools.

12 Comments for We’ll Always Have ‘Charlie’

Travis Smith 06.21.07 | 4:05 PM ET

F is for Four.

N is for Ned.

S is for Sure.

O is for Onomatopoeia.

SlyRabbit 06.22.07 | 3:04 PM ET

G as in GNU
K as in KNEW
N as in NEW

Mary Elizabeth 06.25.07 | 11:24 AM ET

R as in Rzeszow (Poland)

ZHE-shf, according to Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate.

V as in volkslied

fks let (M-W 11)

Jeff 06.25.07 | 1:51 PM ET


Jerry Haines 06.26.07 | 12:30 PM ET

Wow!  What a talent pool we have here.  Thank you all; keep ‘em comin’.

Jipijapa Volkslied Hrosvitha (ooh…think I hurt myself)

Rebecca 07.06.07 | 9:32 AM ET

How about U)Um

Jerry Haines 07.06.07 | 3:59 PM ET

That has promise, Rebecca—a phonetic alphabet composed of hesitations:

a=ah; d= drat; e= eh; o=oh; w=what the…

p=“put away that gun, Sam.  No, no…aiyeee!”

mike 07.25.07 | 11:13 AM ET

P as in Pterodactyl

that was in a You Don’t Know Jack game, I laughed my ass off when they said that.

Enig Kindje 07.25.07 | 5:42 PM ET

T as in Thrive

R as in Right

W as in WriteP as in Psychic
P as in Phenomenon

Travis Smith 07.25.07 | 6:07 PM ET

I also like:

S as in Shhh

Freek De Smedt 07.26.07 | 7:11 AM ET

How about this one: George Bernard Shaw wrote about the bizarre spelling of the English language as well, noting that “ghoti” should be pronounced as “fish”! (lauGH - wOmen - loTIon). Hilarious!

Rowdy 07.13.08 | 8:54 AM ET

How about:
R as in Rye (sounds like Eye)
or E as in Ewe (sounds like You)
T as in Tsunami
V as in Very (sounds like Berry)

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