D for Dog, L for Love

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When confirming reservations on the phone with clerical folks in certain southeast Asian countries, Paul Midler noticed they often used variations of the NATO phonetic alphabet. “D for Dog” and “L for Love” seemed to be a couple consistent additions. Passing through a travel agency in Thailand, he saw this:

The Thai writing at the top of the notice says:

ka:n a:n tua aksɔːn pha:sa: angkrit
English alphabet reading

การอ่าน =   ka:n a:n  = reading
ตัวอักษร =   tua aksɔːn = alphabet
ภาษาอังกฤษ = pha:sa: angkrit =  English

The letter values that surprise me most here are "Obo" ("or best offer"[?]) and "Tare" (how many people in Southeast Asia would know this word, whether as a plant name or a kind of weight?).  Given the position of the missing medial "r" just before the "l", "Chalie" is understandable.

Here's the FAA radiotelephony alphabet and Morse code chart:

[Thanks to Justin McDaniel and Pattira Thaithosaeng]


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 11:49 am

    The NATO website explains:

    On the military side, the United States adopted a Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, called the Able Baker alphabet after the first two code words, across all of its military branches in 1941. Two years later, the British Royal Air Force decided to use the Able Baker alphabet as well.

    Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra

    So that explains the origins of Dog, Love, Obo(e), Tare, and all the rest.

  2. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

    A continuing effect of this alphabet is the use of 'Roger' (for R, for 'received') to mean 'message received and understood'.

  3. KeithB said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

    victor = vic-tah?
    (Insert Boston joke here.)

  4. Sniffnoy said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

    Yes — modulo misspellings, this is identical to the older Able Baker alphabet, except:

    1. "Jig" has been replaced by "Jimmy", and
    2. "Yoke" has been replaced by "York" (but this might just be a mispelling due to non-rhoticity)

  5. CuConnacht said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    It seems NATO uses words likely to be more familiar to non-native English speakers than the Able Baker alphabet.

    Judging from things I've read, pre-1943 the British Army seemed to use a set of nonsense syllables, so that AM was ack-emma, PM pip-emma, and anti-aircraft was ack-ack.

  6. David B Solnit said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

    Re Tare: in making air reservations during my time in Thailand, I learned that my surname is spelled Sugar Oboe Love Nan Item Tan: "Tare" was adjusted to accord with Thai phonotactics, which don't allow syllable-final r or l. They are consistently replaced by the closest permissible segment, namely a final sonorant at the same place of articulation. Cf. the loanword bɔɔn, from English "ball".

  7. Ian said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 5:12 pm

    When I learned this in school (in Canada in the 1980s), it was “Uncle” instead of “Uniform.” This helped memory for me as I could say “Uncle Victor likes his Whiskey.” to remember that section.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    The NATO alphabet often uses less common words than the Able-Baker one did, and also uses fewer monosyllables — the idea, as I understand it, was to select 26 words that each had maximal contrast with the other 25 even if heard over a very crackly lo-fi radio connection.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 7:23 pm

    Interestingly, of the two monosyllables ("Golf" and "Mike"), the first has extremely variable pronunciation, from high RP / ɡɒf/ through /ɡɒlf/ and everyday /ɡəʊlf/ to estuary /ɡəʊɫf/.

  10. SlideSF said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 8:02 pm

    T as in Tare seems really odd to me, since the words are meant to clear up any ambiguity of pronunciation. So if you are unclear if it is T, B, D, or P that the speaker is saying, and if you are unfamiliar with this alphabet, "Tare" is not going to enlighten you any further.

  11. John Swindle said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 2:54 am

    There's a history of these alphabets in the current English-language Wikipedia article on "Spelling Alphabets."

  12. Gav said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 6:49 am

    While studying for my RT licence half a century or so ago, I was gently ticked off, that is, rebuked, by the tutor for pronouncing P as PA-pa. "No, dear boy," he said, "one says pa-PAH". But we all carried on saying PA-pa.

    And as thankful people we used to come and sing about "tares" every year too, but the word like so many others has been expunged from many modern hymnals.

  13. Chris Button said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 7:17 am

    Reminds me of that great line from the movie Airplane:

    "Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor? We have clearance, Clarence"

    It also includes the all-time classic:

    "Surely you can't be serious?" "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley"

  14. Michael Watts said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    I would say the odd one out is Nan, which I don't recognize as a word. With a different capitalization, NaN is "not a number", but very few people will recognize that.

    Merriam-Webster seems to recognize two possibilities for "Nan":

    1. Misspelling of naan. (Also not an English word; also unknown to the majority of English speakers.)

    2. A river 390 miles (628 kilometers) long in northern Thailand flowing south to join the Ping River forming the Chao Phraya River.

    How did this get into the Able Baker alphabet in the first place?

  15. TonyK said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 7:40 am

    @Michael Watts: "Nan" is very common in British English. Its primary meaning is "grandmother", but it can apply to other female relatives or caregivers.

  16. GH said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 7:41 am

    Collins includes what I expect is the intended reference term:

    nan, nana or nanna
    a child's words for grandmother
    [see nanny; compare Greek nanna aunt, Medieval Latin nonna old woman]

    I would also protest that "nan" is a variant rather than misspelling of "naan", and that I would expect it to be known to most English speakers.

  17. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 7:54 am

    Nan is a well-known (if now old-fashioned) name, so I would have counted it in with Charlie, George, Mike, Peter etc.

    (To Anne what Ned is to Edward and Nell to Eleanor)

  18. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 7:57 am

    I'm only aware of having come across Able and Baker as the names of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests – I didn't realise they were using an official alphanet.

  19. KeithB said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 8:56 am

    I assumed Nan was a name, short for "Nanette", as in Fabray.

  20. Jeffrey said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 8:59 am

    In my beginning Chinese class, we've picked up from our teachers the use of the structure xxx xxx de xxx to disambiguate homophonic syllables with different tones. For example, we'll say tingdong de ting to make sure we mean ting with the first tone. We grab any familiar word. Zoulu de lu for lu with the fourth tone. I'm not sure if we're doing it the right way, but for now it does the job.

    But I'm wondering if native Chinese speakers have a set of common words for disambiguation of syllables, similar as we use B as in Boy and V as in Victor for English spelling.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 9:16 am

    "Nan" is very common in British English. Its primary meaning is "grandmother", but it can apply to other female relatives or caregivers.

    It would be strange for the Able Baker alphabet to use a specifically British word given that, according to the first comment, it comes from the US Army.

    we've picked up from our teachers the use of the structure xxx xxx de xxx to disambiguate homophonic syllables with different tones. For example, we'll say tingdong de ting to make sure we mean ting with the first tone. We grab any familiar word. Zoulu de lu for lu with the fourth tone.

    This construct isn't really meant to refer to tones. It's a common way to describe spelling. If you want to indicate the syllable tīng, you can just say tīng — tones are a feature of the spoken language. Saying 听懂的听 specifically indicates that you mean tīng "listen" as opposed to e.g. tīng "hall".

    When Chinese people have wanted to explicitly refer to the tone of a syllable to me, they usually say something like 听1声 tīng yi shēng ("ting first tone").

  22. Jeffrey said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 9:35 am

    @Michael Watts

    That's exactly what we're doing: Saying tingdong de ting to disambiguate the syllable ting + first tone meaning "listen" from the syllable ting + first tone meaning "hall."

    We also use, of course, ting yi sheng for the syllable ting with the first tone, but that doesn't help with the disambiguation that we're seeking.

    My question is whether native speakers have a set of basic words like tingdong used for disambiguation.

    Do you understand now?

  23. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 9:40 am

    they usually say something like 听1声 tīng yi shēng ("ting first tone")

    In more than half a century of learning and using Mandarin, I've almost never heard Chinese refer to tones this way, for the simple reason that, although they certainly speak the tones correctly and naturally, your typical speaker of Sinitic languages does not automatically identify tones with a specific number. Indeed, most speakers of Cantonese I've met have a hard time determining how many tones their language actually has, much less identifying them with specific numbers.

    In the exceedingly rare instances where I have heard Sinitic speakers — in the course of a conversation — refer to tones by numbers, they have always been teachers or linguists.

    When the typical Sinitic speakers (outside of a classroom or other pedagogical setting) I have encountered want to identify or emphasize the tone of a particular syllable, they use the method introduced by Jeffrey at the beginning of this sub-thread.

  24. Jeffrey said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 9:58 am

    @Victor Mair,

    Oh, that makes sense now. Sometimes I will ask a non-teacher native speaker which tone a word has and they're often unsure.

    In our classes, we're always asking our teachers which tone a syllable or word has. They always know — but, as you say, because they're teachers.

    I think something similar happens with the three levels of stress — primary, secondary, and no stress — in English words. As a teacher of English, I go over many exercises in class on the stress patterns, but I have to tell my students that if they ask a non-teacher native speaker which syllable of a word has primary stress, they're going to get a blank expression in response. Primary stress? What's that?

  25. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 10:06 am



  26. Robert Coren said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 11:18 am

    I think of "Nan" as a diminutive of "Nancy".

  27. Jonathan said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 12:16 pm

    "four" (FOW-ER) rhymes with "hour"?

    I knew about the idiosyncratic pronunciation of "nine" as (NIN-ER) [purely from movies], but has anyone ever heard FOW-ER?

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 1:41 pm

    Robert Coren: Originally "Nan" was a diminutive of "Ann" (from "mine Ann"). As noted at Behindthename, "Nancy" was

    Previously a medieval diminutive of ANNIS, though since the 18th century it has been a diminutive of ANN. It is now usually regarded as an independent name. During the 20th century it became very popular in the United States.

    "Annis" is from "Agnes".

    KeithB: "Nanette" is a French diminutive of "Anne".

    Jonathan: I think that "FOW" is supposed to rhyme with "know", not "now", so "four" is pronounced to rhyme with "knower". They could have shown that more clearly.

  29. Ellen K. said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 1:41 pm


    I'm thinking that's -OW as in know, low, grow. Which is still strange, since it makes four into a two syllable word instead of one, but it's pretty close to how I'd pronounce it (in my General American ish accent).

  30. Rob said,

    December 13, 2019 @ 6:38 pm

    Nan also finds use as "NaN" meaning "Not a number" in the computing world.
    Interestingly, there are quiet NaNs and signalling NaNs.

  31. Rodger C said,

    December 14, 2019 @ 11:33 am

    There are still English speakers who distinguish the vowels in "for" (OE for) and "four" (OE feower. For these speakers the latter can become a dissyllable when spoken slowly. I had an older friend who was always annoyed at seeing "4" as an abbreviation for "for," because to him it wasn't even a rhyme.

  32. Jason M said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 1:19 pm

    A weird thing about Able Baker is “sugar” which doesn’t actually have an S sound, making one have to do an extra mental step involving orthography to deconvolute. Reminds me of my grandfather’s joke: “Didja know Sugar is the only word in the English language that starts with SU but is pronounced like SH?……………….It SURE is.”….One could trump the punchline I guess by saying “SUREly, you can’t be serious.” :-)

  33. Bathrobe said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 2:20 pm

    To the Accuser Who Is
    The God of This World

    Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce,
    And dost not know the Garment from the Man.
    Every Harlot was a Virgin once,
    Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan.

  34. Andy Stow said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

    A = AYE
    B = BEE
    C = CUE
    D = DJINN
    E = EYE
    F = FOUR
    G = GNU
    Y = YOU
    Z = ZERO

  35. Steve Bacher said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 1:30 pm


    > "four" (FOW-ER) rhymes with "hour"?

    It did, in Franco-American Spaghetti commercials from the 1960's:


  36. Steve Bacher said,

    December 24, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

    "Nan" for N is a poor choice ("Nancy" would be far better) for the same reason "Tare" is a poor choice for "T". If the intent is to disambiguate sonically, it would fail; the most likely mishearing would be "M" ("Man").

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