4 Phonetic Alphabets That Didn't Survive

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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.

What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

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iStock.com/mediaphotos

Aside from tacos, enchiladas, and other tasty tortilla-wrapped treats, tequila and mezcal are among some of Mexico’s best-known offerings in the food and beverage category. These tipples, made from the agave plant, are so embedded in the country’s culture that Mexico City even has a museum dedicated to the two drinks, and Jose Cuervo operates a "tequila train" to none other than the city of Tequila. These beverages can be used to make a variety of cocktails, from the tequila sunrise to the mezcalita, but unless you’re a bartender or a connoisseur of spirits, you might not know the difference between the two. Is mezcal just fancier tequila?

Not exactly. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but the reverse isn’t always true. It’s similar to the distinction between champagne and sparkling wine, in which the name of the beverage depends on whether it was produced in the Champagne region of France or elsewhere. While mezcal can be produced anywhere in Mexico, tequila is made in the Mexican state of Jalisco (though a few exceptions do apply).

Tequila and mezcal also differ in the ingredients from which they are derived. Mezcal can come from any of the dozens of agave plants—a type of desert succulent—that are grown throughout Mexico. Tequila is made specifically from blue agave and, depending on the variety and brand, a bottle will contain between 51 percent and 100 percent of the plant-based nectar. According to The Tierra Group, a wholesaler of agave products, blue agave nectar is especially sweet because it’s 80 percent fructose, per Mexico’s regulations.

Lastly, tequila and mezcal taste different because of the ways in which they are prepared. Mezcal tends to have a savory, smoky, earthy flavor because the agave hearts (or piñas) are left cooking for several days in a fire pit that has been lined with volcanic rock and covered with agave leaves and earth. The piñas destined to end up in tequila, on the other hand, are often cooked in a brick oven, then crushed up to extract the juice.

If you ever feel adventurous at the liquor store and decide to bring home a bottle of mezcal, just keep in mind that there’s a particular way to drink it. “The first mistake many people make is pouring mezcal in a shot glass and pouring it down their throat,” Chris Reyes, a mixologist at New York City’s Temerario bar and restaurant told Liquor.com. Instead, the spirit is best sipped in a clay cup known as a jicarita.

Some words of advice if you do go shopping for mezcal: If you ever see a worm at the bottom of the bottle, that means it’s probably not a very good mezcal, according to Reyes. By contrast, tequila bottles should never have worms in them (despite the common misconception). So if you’re looking to avoid invertebrate-infused concoctions at all costs, tequila is your best bet.

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

15 Animal Names That Can Be Used As Verbs

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People can go fishing, rabbit on incessantly, dog one another, and horse around. But because of their usefulness in completing burdensome work, horse has also been used in (originally naval) slang since the mid-19th century to mean “to work to the point of exhaustion”—or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to drive or urge at work unfairly or tyrannically.” But horses aren’t the only animals whose names can be “verbed.” From turtles to tigers, you can drop any one of these 15 creatures into your everyday conversation.

1. Bulldog

No one is entirely sure why bulldogs are called bulldogs, with different theories pointing to everything from their bull-like stature to their bullish faces to the fact that they might once have been bred to bait bulls. Whatever the origin, the bulldog’s strength and its robust, resilient behavior means that you can use its name as a verb meaning “to attack roughly,” or “to wrestle to the ground.”

2. Tiger

A tiger
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If you tiger, then you walk to and fro, like a tiger pacing in a cage. If you tiger something, then you paint or mark it with contrasting stripes.

3. Spider

Jumping spider
iStock.com/elthar2007

As well as being used simply to mean “to creep” or “to move like a spider,” if you ensnare or entrap something, or else cover it in a cobweb-like pattern, then you spider it.

4. Cat

British shorthair cat with expressive orange eyes
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Because the cathead is the horizontal beam at the bow of a ship that’s used to raise an anchor, the word cat has a number of nautical uses as a verb, including “to lift an anchor from the water,” “to secure an anchor,” and “to draw an anchor through the water.” But because shooting the cat was 19th century slang for being sick from drinking too much, you can also use cat to mean “to vomit.”

5. Vulture

White-backed vulture
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Vultures’ grim feeding habits and their remarkable flying ability have given the word two meanings as a verb in English. Feel free to use it to mean “to eat voraciously” or “to tear at your food,” or else “to descend steadily through the air.”

6. Owl

Owl in flight
iStock.com/WhitcombeRD

Owling (as well as being a short-lived social media craze) was once the name given to the crime of smuggling sheep and wool from England to the continent—a crime so-called because the nefarious “owlers” carried out their crimes at night. That might not be the most useful of words these days of course, so feel free to also use owl to mean “to act wisely, despite not knowing anything.”

7. Shark

It’s easy to presume that the use of shark as a verb to mean “to act like a predator” (which is the same shark as in loanshark, incidentally) derives from the deadly sea creatures. In fact, it might be the opposite: Both meanings of the word shark date back to the late 16th century, but it’s possible that the verb shark is the older of the two. If so, it’s possible that it comes from the earlier word shirk (in the sense of using deceit or trickery to avoid work) or else a northeastern French word, cherquier, which was often used in a phrase that essentially meant “to sponge of others” or “to act as a parasite.” So how did sea-dwelling sharks come to be called sharks? It’s possible the deceitful sharks gave their name to the menacing creatures, or else the two could be completely unrelated—and, thanks to a sea battle off the Yucatan peninsula in 1569, shark could in fact be a Mayan word.

8. Monkey

Chimpanzee looking surprised
iStock.com/photomaru

As well as meaning “to play the fool” or “to behave playfully”—as in “monkeying around”—monkey, like ape, can also be used to mean “to mimic” or “to copy someone’s movements or actions.”

9. Turtle

If a boat “turns turtle,” then it capsizes and flips over, so that it looks like a turtle’s domed shell floating atop the water. Because of that, to turtle something is to turn it upside down.

10. Snail

Burgundy snail
iStock.com/AlexRaths

For obvious reasons, snail has been used to mean “to move slowly” since the late 16th century, but because of the snail’s coiled shell, you can also use snail to mean “to draw or carve a spiral,” or “to roll into a spiral shape.”

11. Porcupine

Porcupine walking
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When your hair stands on end, feel free to say that it porcupined.

12. Canary

Canary birds take their name from the Canary Islands, which, somewhat confusingly, take their name from canis, the Latin word for “dog.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the canary was also the name of an energetic dance inspired by a traditional dance performed by the natives of the Canary Islands. And because of that, you can also use the word canary as a verb meaning “to dance in a lively fashion.”

13. Earwig

Earwig
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Earwigs are so-called because they were once (thankfully erroneously) thought to crawl inside people’s ears as they slept. Through association with someone whispering clandestinely into someone’s ear, in the late 18th century eavesdroppers and people who seeked to secretly influence others became known as earwiggers—and so to earwig is to do precisely that.

14. Pig

Cute pig leaning on railing of his cot
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Pig has been used to mean “to give birth” since as far back as the 15th century in English (a fairly uncomplimentary allusion to a pregnant sow delivering a litter of piglets). But slightly less depreciatively, the living habits of pigs mean that it can also be used to mean “to huddle together,” or else “to live or sleep in crowded or dirty conditions.”

15. Dingo

A dingo
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Because of their stereotypically sneaky behavior, to dingo on someone meant “to let down” or “to betray” them in 1930s Australian slang, while to dingo meant simply “to shirk” or “to back out of something at the last minute.”

This list first ran in 2016.

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