Most of us have played, or at least heard of, the telephone game. Each person whispers a phrase to the next person in line, and by the end of the process, the message is completely garbled. This communication breakdown is funny at the time, but when it happens in real life, it's less amusing… and more frustrating.

In order to be clearly heard when speaking, we need a system that's phonetically distinct—that way no one's left wondering if you said “here”, “ear”, or “beer”. When spelling words over the phone or radio, many people often say “A as in apple” or “B as in boy”. However, these aren't standardized, and may lead to more confusion if someone says “K as in knight” or “N as in night”.

The standard NATO alphabet, established in 1956.

The standard NATO alphabet, established in 1956.

Fortunately, an international consortium of military forces have established a system of phonetic code words for this purpose: the NATO alphabet. This alphabet is is used to spell parts of a message containing letters to avoid confusion, especially for important military objectives such as targets and waypoints. It's also useful to us as civilians, since it makes communicating clearly much easier.

British telecommunications provider VoIP Broker created the following infographic with pictograms that should help you memorize the alphabet.

NATO alphabet infographic

So, do you know your Alfas, Bravos, and Charlies yet, or are you still scratching your head and saying “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”?

Give it some time, and come back to study and test yourself later. You never know when it could come in handy, especially over cell phone conversations with weak signal. Plus, it sounds a lot more professional than saying “X as in… uhhhh… xylophone?”

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