When we want to pronounce a word, it’s usually pretty straightforward. As long as it isn’t one of those longwinded scientific or technical terms, we either already know how to say the word or we can figure it out pretty easily by using the standard rules of American English.

But in situations where accuracy and every second count — as is the case with the military and first responders — the phonetic alphabet is often employed for the sake of clarity. I can still recall the NATO version of the phonetic alphabet from my days in the Army Signal Corps years ago. You know: using the words alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, etc. to reference the letters A, B, C, D, etc.

Back then we communicated with our neighboring microwave sites by yelling into the radio the name of the town we wanted to raise and hoping that the person on duty in that town was awake. We then identified the circuit that we were having trouble with — they had catchy names such as “eight hotel tango Romeo” and “bravo zero zero four” — and tracked down and rectified the issue.

Once our problem was solved, we would exchange our initials as verification. Going by the book, I always gave my initials using the words “Juliet whisky,” but that didn’t stop some creative people on the other end from calling me everything from “jealous wife” to “juicy worm.” My favorite though was “John Wayne.”

Recently I heard from a reader who wanted to share an interesting phonetic spelling technique he sometimes uses, one that doesn’t exactly enhance clarity, but definitely serves to lighten the mood a little.

Local reader Joel Goodman, who gave me permission to use his name, told me that when he’s asked to spell his name over the phone, he sometimes spells it using words that start with silent letters, putting a devilish twist on the process. For example, he says “G as in gnome, O as in Oedipus, O as in Oedipus, D as in Dnieper (a German river pronounced ‘nye-ee-per’), M as in mnemonic” and so on.

Curious, he asked me if I knew what something like this would be called. I didn’t, so I did what any normal person would do, I Googled it, thinking that I’d end up with a term such as “un-phonetic” or maybe “nonphonetic.”

Nope. All I found was some guy who said that “The correct term for ‘silent letters’ is ‘silent letters.'” He went on to explain that “Letters are part of an orthographic system, while phonetics is part of speech.” At that point I again did what any normal person would do, I gave up. And I again returned to thinking about all the accuracy and clarity that come from using the phonetic alphabet.

In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m so enamored with it I’ve even collected some phonetic alphabet trivia: The two dances mentioned in the alphabet are foxtrot and tango, and the two Shakespearean characters are Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, and by the way, the word for “n” is “November,” not “Nancy.” I guess that when it comes to the phonetic alphabet, I’m still a stickler.

(In case you’re wondering, the way I remember the phonetic alphabet is: alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, golf, hotel, India, Juliet, kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, papa, Quebec, Romeo, sierra, tango, uniform, victor, whisky, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.)

Over and out.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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