CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

What's Up With "10-4" And Other Radio Lingo?

Getty Images
Getty Images


Reader and frequent question-asker Nate J. wrote in wondering why we say things like "10-4" and "Roger" on walkie-talkies and other two-way radios.

The Ten-Codes

The ten-codes or ten-signals are code words used as stand-ins for common phrases in radio communication. Charles Hopper, a communications director with the Illinois State Police, developed them in 1937 to combat the problem of the first syllables or words of a transmission being cut off or misunderstood. Preceding every code with "ten" gave the sometimes slow equipment time to warm up and improved the likelihood that a listener would understand the important part of a message. The codes also allowed for brevity and standardization in radio message traffic.

The codes were expanded by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) in 1974 and were used by both law enforcement agencies and civilian CB radio users. Over time, differing meanings for the codes came about in different agencies and jurisdictions, undoing the codes' usefulness as a concise and standardized system. The problem came to a head in 2005 during rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina. After several instances of inter-agency communication problems, the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) discouraged the use of ten-codes and today the federal government recommends they be replaced with plain, everyday language. Here's the official APCO list.

Roger That

In the days of the telegraph, the Morse code letter R (dot-dash-dot) was sometimes used to indicate "received" or "message received/understood." When radio voice communication began to replace telegraphs, Roger, the code word assigned to the letter R in the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet (the radio alphabet used by all branches of the United States military from 1941 to 1956), took on the same role.

Contrary to what Hollywood would have you think, Roger only means "last transmission received/understood" and does not also mean or imply "I will comply." Wilco (Will Comply) is the code used if the speaker intends to convey "message received and will comply." Given that, the phrase Roger Wilco, which you so often hear in the movies, is redundant and not really used since Wilco alone covers all the bases and acknowledges receipt of message and states intent to comply.

Mayday


Getty Images

Mayday is an international code word used to signal life-threatening emergencies. It was originated in 1923 by Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at London's Croydon Airport. He was given the task of coming up with a unique and easily understandable emergency code word. Most of the air traffic at Croydon was either coming from or going to Le Bourget Airport in Paris, so Mockford chose mayday because of its similarity to the French m'aider ("come help me").

Because it is an emergency signal, there are plenty of rules governing the use and format of a mayday call. A mayday call can only be made when life or craft is in imminent danger of death or destruction (and, as with fake 9-1-1 calls, fake mayday calls are considered serious crimes. In the U.S., making a fake distress call is a federal crime that can carry large fines and jail time), and once one is made, no other messages can be transmitted except to assist in the emergency.

Correct format for a Mayday call is:

- "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." The call is always given three times in a row to keep it from being mistaken for a similar-sounding phrase, or to distinguish an actual distress signal from a message about a mayday call.

- "This is ____." The vessel name is repeated three times, followed by call sign if available.

- "Mayday. [vessel name]."

- "My position is ____." Position is given in latitude-longitude coordinates, or bearing and distance from a fixed point.

- "I am _____." The type of emergency, e.g. fire or sinking.

- "I require immediate assistance."

- "I have _____." The number of people on board and their condition, as well as any other pertinent information, e.g. abandoning to life rafts.

- "Over."

Some radio instructors suggest the mnemonic MIPDANIO for learning mayday signal format: Mayday, Identify, Position, Distress, Assistance, Number of crew, Information, Over.

Phonetic or Spelling Alphabets

The problem: a lot of letters sound alike. If two people are talking to each other on the telephone or a two-way radio, an "N" might be misheard as an "M," or a "B" might be heard as a "D," "T," or "C." If one person tells the other that the secret code that must be entered to save the world from imminent disaster is "M-A-T-T", there's a chance that we might all die because a little bit of static could cause the code to be heard as "N-8-B-D."

The solution: a phonetic alphabet or spelling alphabet, where code words are assigned to the letters of the alphabet acrophonically (that is, the code word assigned to a given letter starts with that letter, like Alpha for "A"). Using the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet mentioned earlier, the above code becomes "Mike-Able-Tare-Tare" which is a little harder to mishear.

Today, the most commonly used spelling alphabet is the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. The alphabet was developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) after World War II and later adopted by organizations like International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (whose use of the alphabet led to its global spread and use of the common name, NATO phonetic alphabet).

In addition to these (and other) organizations, the alphabet is used by the military and in civilian industries (retail, IT and airlines for instance). The alphabet in its current form is:
Alfa
Bravo
Charlie
Delta
Echo
Foxtrot
Golf
Hotel
India
Juliet
Kilo
Lima
Mike
November
Oscar
Papa
Quebec
Romeo
Sierra
Tango
Uniform
Victor
Whiskey
X-ray
Yankee
Zulu.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios