Nov 15, 2010

F, as in Foxtrot. W, as in W, or Wasting Our Time.

Whenever someone on the phone tells me my confirmation number for a reservation or a purchase, they say a letter and then they add these clarifying phrases after each letter. They say things like, “A, as in alpha”, “B, as in bravo”, or “F, as in foxtrot”. It’s helpful to add these phrases after letters that sound similar, like M and N or F and S, but for the letters that no one will ever confuse, like W, speaking/hearing the phrase that follows the letter is kind of pointless. I’m just trying to save everyone involved a little bit of time here. I don’t want to spend part of my time on planet Earth listening to someone say “as in bravo” unless they’ve got a really nice voice.

Here are all the letters grouped by whether they rhyme with each other or not.

A, J, K
B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, Z
F, S
I, Y
M, N
Q, U

Now, not all of the ones that rhyme with each other have a good chance of being confused with each other. Look at the first group—A, J and K. It’s pretty easy to hear the difference between A and J even though they rhyme with each other because J has that consonant sound, “juh”, in front of the “ay” sound. And although J and K both have a consonant sound in front of the “ay” sound, the “juh” sound and the “kuh” sound are different enough from each other that they’re not likely to be mistaken for each other. So instead of “A, as in alpha”, “J, as in Juliet” and “K, as in kilo”, I suggest “A”, “J” and “K”. That way we can save our breath for singing love songs.

With the same reasoning applied to the other groups, the only letter pairs that are likely to be mistaken for one another are F/S, M/N and maybe B/P.

In distinguishing which letter we mean, we should use the shortest words possible. And, of course, the word should not work with both letters. “Fox” would be a bad choice to clarify the letter F from S because “socks” is a word. If you can’t hear the difference between “F” and “S”, then you probably also can’t hear the difference between “fox” and “socks”.

So how about:

F, as in far
S, as in sick

M, as in mud
N, as in not

B, as in boy
P, as in pie

Or we could just use numbers.

Another option is to not mention any clarifying phrases until it’s obvious that someone’s been misunderstood. When I call them and they ask me for my confirmation number, I don’t say all this “as in bravo” stuff and they usually understand me just fine.