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Phonetic Alphabet and Signal Flags

Related source: Bravo Zulu

A phonetic alphabet is a list of words used to identify letters in a message transmitted by radio or telephone. Spoken words from an approved list are substituted for letters. For example, the word "Navy" would be "November Alfa Victor Yankee" when spelled in the phonetic alphabet. This practice helps to prevent confusion between similar sounding letters, such as "m" and "n", and to clarify communications that may be garbled during transmission.

An early version of the phonetic alphabet appears in the 1913 edition of The Bluejackets’ Manual. Found in the Signals section, it was paired with the Alphabetical Code Flags defined in the International Code. Both the meanings of the flags (the letter which they represent) and their names (which make up the phonetic alphabet) were selected by international agreement. Later editions included the Morse code signal as well.

Flags with special meanings in Navy signaling were given extra names. These five flags are called governing flags. They convey specific information about how to interpret a signal based on their position among the other flags raised. The governing flags are called Afirm (Affirmative), Int (Interrogatory), Negat (Negative), Option (Optional), Prep (Preparatory). The Navy often substituted these special names for the standard word listed in the phonetic alphabet. During World War II, when it was necessary for the Navy to communicate with the Army or Allied forces, signalmen were directed to use the standard words, given in parentheses.

The words chosen to represent some letters have changed since the phonetic alphabet was introduced. When these changes occur, they are made by international agreement. The current phonetic alphabet was adopted in 1957.

Letter 1913 1927 1938 World War II 1957-Present Signal Flag
A Able Affirmative Afirm Afirm (Able) Alfa  
B Boy Baker Baker Baker Bravo  
C Cast Cast Cast Charlie Charlie  
D Dog Dog Dog Dog Delta  
E Easy Easy Easy Easy Echo  
F Fox Fox Fox Fox Foxtrot  
G George George George George Golf  
H Have Hypo Hypo How Hotel  
I Item Interrogatory Int Int (Item) India  
J Jig Jig Jig Jig Juliett  
K King King King King Kilo  
L Love Love Love Love Lima  
M Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike  
N Nan Negative Negat Negat (Nan) November  
O Oboe Option Option Option (Oboe) Oscar  
P Pup Preparatory Prep Prep (Peter) Papa  
Q Quack Quack Queen Queen Quebec  
R Rush Roger Roger Roger Romeo  
S Sail Sail Sail Sugar Sierra  
T Tare Tare Tare Tare Tango  
U Unit Unit Unit Uncle Uniform  
V Vice Vice Victor Victor Victor  
W Watch William William William Whiskey  
X X-ray X-ray X-ray X-ray X-ray  
Y Yoke Yoke Yoke Yoke Yankee  
Z Zed Zed Zed Zebra Zulu  

Sources:

The Bluejackets' Manual. Revised and Expanded ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1913.
The Bluejackets' Manual. 5th ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1917.
The Bluejackets' Manual. 7th ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1927.
The Bluejackets' Manual. 8th ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1938.
The Bluejackets' Manual. 11th ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1943.
The Bluejackets' Manual. 15th ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1957.
The Bluejackets' Manual. 20th ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1978.
Watson, Bruce W. and Susan M. Watson. United States Navy: A Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.