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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.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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