If you have a tricky name that needs spelling out every now and then, or you ever need to clarify something like a password or an address over the phone, you might find yourself resorting to the NATO phonetic alphabet:
Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu
Notice anything unusual? Yes, in the official version of that alphabet it's alfa with an F, not alpha with a P (so as to avoid any confusion among non-English speakers who might not be aware that "ph" should be pronounced "f"). And yes, Juliett really is spelled with two Ts here (for the benefit of French speakers who might otherwise consider it a silent letter).
Although this system is generally called a phonetic alphabet, strictly speaking it's nothing of the sort: Alpha (as English speakers generally spell it), Bravo, Charlie is a spelling alphabet, entirely different from the International Phonetic Alphabet that's used to transcribe the pronunciation of words. And despite arguably being best known as the NATO phonetic alphabet, this isn't the work of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Instead, it was the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations, that developed the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie alphabet in the 1950s in an attempt to standardize all the various letter-by-letter spelling systems in use around the world. It was only after it was adopted by NATO that its association with the ICAO drifted into relative obscurity.
But despite being arguably the most famous and most used spelling alphabet, the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie system isn't the oldest, nor is it the only communications alphabet to have been used by military and international organizations.
1. AMSTERDAM, BALTIMORE, CASABLANCA
What is credited with being the first spelling alphabet adopted and used internationally was developed by the predecessor of the International Telecommunication Union in 1927 and further revised in 1932. Comprising a mixture of world famous city names and place names alongside a handful of instantly recognizable names and surnames (and, for some reason, the random word kilogramme), it remained in use until the 1960s when the NATO system all but replaced it:
Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca, Denmark, Edison, Florida, Gallipoli, Havana, Italia, Jerusalem, Kilogramme, Liverpool, Madagascar, New York, Oslo, Paris, Quebec, Roma, Santiago, Tripoli, Uppsala, Valencia, Washington, Xanthippe, Yokohama, Zurich
2. APPLES, BUTTER, CHARLIE
Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca might have been the first internationally recognized alphabet, but phonetic spelling alphabets in one form or another (though not always complete) have been in use in various industries and armed forces since the late 19th century.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), some words and syllables like Ack, Beer, Emma (for the letter M), Pip, Esses (for S), Toc and Vic or Vay are known to have been in use since 1898 at the latest to avoid confusion between soundalike letters like M and N, and B, D, P, and V. But no full, standardized system that catered for the entire alphabet grew out of these early examples until the turn of the century: In 1917, at the height of the First World War, the British Royal Navy introduced its first complete—and quintessentially British sounding—phonetic alphabet:
Apples, Butter, Charlie, Duff, Edward, Freddy, George, Harry, Ink, Johnnie, King, London, Monkey, Nuts, Orange, Pudding, Queenie, Robert, Sugar, Tommy, Uncle, Vinegar, Willie, Xerxes, Yellow, Zebra
…which was followed in the 1920s by this slightly modified version introduced to standardize the alphabets out there:
Ac, Beer, Charlie, Don, Edward, Freddie, George, Harry, Ink, Johnnie, King, London, Monkey, Nuts, Orange, Pip, Queen, Robert, Sugar, Too, Uncle, Vic, William, X-ray, Yorker, Zebra
The origins of both the Navy and RAF's phonetic alphabets are debatable, but it's thought that both developed from this earlier alphabet, devised in 1914 and promoted by the British Post Office:
Apple, Brother, Charlie, Dover, Eastern, Father, George, Harry, India, Jack, King, London, Mother, November, October, Peter, Queen, Robert, Sugar, Thomas, Uncle, Victoria, Wednesday, Xmas, Yellow, Zebra
But even this system isn't the earliest.
3. AUTHORITY, BILLS, CAPTURE
Listed in an early edition of Brown’s Signalling, a long-running guide to telegraph communication, one of the earliest recorded spelling alphabets was in use among telegraph operators in Tasmania as far back as 1908. It read:
Authority, Bills, Capture, Destroy, Englishmen, Fractious, Galloping, High, Invariably, Juggling, Knights, Loose, Managing, Never, Owners, Play, Queen, Remarks, Support, The, Unless, Vindictive, When, Xpeditiously, Your, Zigzag
If that doesn't seem like the most straightforward system, or if it seems that some of those words—like fractious and expeditiously—are unnecessarily complicated, there's good reason. This alphabet was not intended to be memorized as an A to Z of random words, but rather in a strict order that served as a mnemonic to make memorizing the words easier:
Englishmen Invariably Support High Authority Unless Vindictive. The Managing Owners Never Destroy Bills. Remarks When Loose Play Jangling. Fractious Galloping Zigzag Knights Xpeditely Capture Your Queen.
4. AGAINST, BARBARIAN, CONTINENTAL
The Authority, Bills, Capture system wasn't the only mnemonic alphabet in use in the early days of telecommunications. Perhaps as early as the American Civil War, an alphabet was brought into use that helped telegraph operators recall the combinations of dots and dashes employed in the Morse Code alphabet:
Against, Barbarian, Continental, Dahlia, Egg, Furiously, Gallantly, Humility, Ivy, Jurisdiction, Kangaroo, Legislator, Mountain, Noble, Offensive, Photographer, Queen Katherine, Rebecca, Several, Tea, Uniform, Very Varied, Waterloo, Exhibition, Youthful and fair, 2-long 2-short
If this alphabet seems even more complicated than the Tasmanian one, again there's good reason. The words here are not random, and need to be divided up into their constituent syllables in order to make sense:
Ag-ainst, Bar-ba-ri-an, Cont-in-ent-al, Dah-li-a, Egg, Fu-ri-ous-ly, Gal-lant-ly, Hu-mi-li-ty, I-vy, Ju-ris-dic-tion, Kan-ga-roo, Le-gis-la-tor, Moun-tain, Nob-le, Off-ens-ive, Pho-tog-raph-er, Queen-Ka-tha-rine, Re-bec-ca, Se-ver-al, Tea, Un-i-form, Ve-ry-Va-ried, Wa-ter-loo, Ex-hi-bi-tion, Youth-ful-and-Fair, 2-long 2-short
Wherever there's a one- or two-letter syllable in that list, it corresponds to a Morse code dot; three-letter syllables and longer correspond to dashes. So ag-ainst becomes the Morse code A, •–. Bar-ba-ri-an becomes –•••. Cont-in-ent-al gives –•-•, and so on.
But there's a problem: Not only does this system run out of steam by the time it gets to Z (2-long 2-short is just a description of the Morse code Z, --••), but according to 19th century pronunciation guides, the word continental was divided up into the syllables "con-tin-nent-al" rather than "cont-in-ent-al." And even despite inconsistencies like that, not all of the words above correctly match their Morse code equivalents: le-gis-la-tor, for instance, would correspond to •–•–, but the Morse code L is actually •–••. Youth-ful-and-Fair likewise would give ––––, but Y in Morse code is –•––.
For that reason, it's debatable precisely how widely used this system was (and given its inconsistencies, it's unlikely it was ever given the backing of the military). Nevertheless, the Against, Barbarian, Continental alphabet at least represents perhaps the earliest attempt to create a standardized communications alphabet—and in that sense is the earliest ancestor of our Alpha, Bravo, Charlie.