This is mostly related to US "normal" day to day usage of the spelling alphabet. I am new to the country and most often emails/names etc needs to be spelled and I find it difficult to determine which set of words to stick to. The Alpha,Bravo..(NATO) alphabet sounds too unnatural to me like in some hollywood film. I 've also heard people using common names (Alice,Bob..) Is that the commonly used set for everyday situations like calling the customer care centers and making reservations?

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    Really people just use a mix of them. Very few people know all of the "official" letter words, from any set. (Sometimes call-center staff actually know a set of these words, because they use it every day.) The "military" alphabet you mention does not at all sound unusual, and you can use it if you want. There's also no problem at all just using "any" word that comes to mind. Names are fine.
    – Fattie
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:11
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    Wikipedia: "For the general populace, and finance professionals in particular, phonetic alternatives such as "November" for the letter N and "Kilo" for the letter K were considered too long or obscure, and an alternative alphabet arose. Common first names were a popular choice, and as a result the First Name Alphabet (possibly first compiled by a US financial firm[citation needed]) has become quite commonly used." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spelling_alphabet
    – Kris
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:14
  • @Kris Thanks, I wanted to see how 'obscure' it is considered to be, as wikipedia says. I am still figuring out what is considered as normal usage.
    – dbza
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:21
  • @Kris I think Wikipedia is wrong here. I imagine "m as in Mary, N as in Nancy" arose several decades before the military settled on "Mike" and "November"
    – phoog
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:33
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    @Kris to what end?
    – phoog
    Sep 23, 2014 at 6:47

2 Answers 2


It really doesn't matter much what spelling alphabet you stick to, unless you are working in a specific branch of industry where people expect a specific alphabet.

In general, people just want to know if you mean N or M, and whether you make that clear by saying Nancy or November, your message will be clear.

In situations where a specific alphabet is used often, it does pay off to stick to it, since people expect to hear specific words when you are spelling. The NATO alphabet is not at all strange, uncommon or unnatural, for instance. It is not only used in the military, but also in civil aviation.

I do understand the "I seem to be in a movie"-feel when you start using it, and outside the military or (civil) aviation there are indeed many places where people will assume you watch too many movies when you spell square as sierra quebec uniform alpha romeo echo. On the other hand, context is everything. In my current job people will assume I'm mad If I would spell it otherwise.

So in short - in a formal(ized) environment, use the prescribed spelling alphabet. In everyday situations, use any alphabet you feel comfortable with, or simply use any word or name you can think of for a letter.

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    I'm not military but I can tell you, call center staff have always greatly appreciated when I use the NATO alphabet, enough to specifically thank me for using it. As the other poster points out, each call center might have their own alphabet unique to their center (say, "Bob" for B), but the NATO one is standard enough to be known at all of them. My guess is when people use other words that aren't their particular one or the NATO one (like "Brian" or "Beth"), it probably throws them off a bit. Nov 29, 2014 at 21:00
  • At least in the UK, folk use the NATO alphabet just to, you know, talk to call centres and things. There's no real military implications. Older mappings like "M for Mother" or "N for November" are also reasonably common. Aug 23, 2015 at 18:59

In my experience, people working call centers are not using any standardized phonetic alphabet, but rather their own. One is as likely to hear "B as in Brittany" or "B as in Buick" as "B as in Bob" or "B as in Bravo" Possibly some of these call centers have their center-wide alphabet. but I've heard enough strange ones to think some operators are left to their own devices.

John W. Campbell, Jr. pointed out that and alphabet of words that sound like the wrong letter might be useful militarily, because it would confuse an invading force. He published a partial alphabet such as Knave for K, Pneumonia for P, asking readers to help make the alphabet complete. I think that was about 1966, and he never published a complete alphabet before he died in 1969.

  • I wonder if anyone ever heard "A for Up". Now that's confusing. Sep 23, 2014 at 7:05
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    A for horses, B for pork?, C for miles, ... O for f***'s sake, ... :)
    – Frank
    Sep 23, 2014 at 7:16
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    @Frank The full Cockney alphabet (in its various forms) can be found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockney_alphabet. It is much more fun than the IPA.
    – WS2
    Sep 23, 2014 at 13:34
  • @WS2 - Excellent, but no "R for Daily"? [Arthur Daley]
    – Frank
    Sep 23, 2014 at 14:09
  • C for cnidarian, K for knight, O for oestrogen, P for phthalate, X for xyster, .... ;-) Aug 23, 2015 at 19:01

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