Thursday May 1, 2008

Either a Prediction or Free Advice

Joss Whedon's upcoming series Dollhouse is about people who can be temporarily programmed with any personality or skills.  The Actives, as they're called, spend time between missions at a facility called The Dollhouse, where they have only rudimentary personalities of their own, and their names reflect this; the characters announced so are called Echo, Sierra, Victor, and November.  Get it?  They're named according to the phonetic alphabet.

No, no, not that phonetic alphabet, the other one—the words used in radio communication to spell out words unambiguously.  Assuming Whedon doesn't intend to name his characters after numbers—which is presumably just the sort of thing he's trying to avoid by using the radio alphabet—that leaves the 26 letters as possible names.  While there's nothing preventing him from naming characters Uniform or Whiskey, I suspect he's going to stick to the more name-sounding letters, so his possible name-space for future Actives includes Charlie, Delta, India, Juliet, Mike, November, Oscar, and Romeo (a potential boyfriend for Juliet?).

This leads me to my idea, which is either a prediction of what's going to happen at some point in the show, or (if he hasn't thought of it yet) a freely offered suggestion for Whedon.  I think that at some point in the show, it will be revealed that there's another Dollhouse organization somewhere in the world, possibly an older one, and the Actives in that organization are named after the WWII-era Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet.  The letters in that alphabet that might make good character names include Able (Abel?), Baker, Easy, Fox, George, King, Nan, Peter, Roger, and William.

Remember, you read it here first.

There have apparently been quite a few different radio alphabets.  In addition to the ones listed on the Wikipedia page for the NATO alphabet, the U.S. Navy's history site has a page listing five of them.  Only the last two (the WWII-era and current ones) sound at all familiar to me, though, probably because there have been many more movies and TV shows showing WWII (or later) radio communications than WWI-era radio.  Their best-known feature is probably the use of niner for nine, which I assume is based on a clever insight: even if the consonants are lost in a bad radio connection, the vowels in the English words for the digits make them all easy to distinguish from each other, except for five and nine.  From zero to nine, we have [i-oʊ], [ʌ], [u], [i], [oʊ], [aʲ], [ɪ], [ɛ-ə], [eʲ], and [aʲ] again.  Tweaking nine to niner is enough to make them all distinct.  Neat.

Radio alphabets have made their way into lots of military jargon over the years, and in some cases out into general English.  For example, the nickname Charlie for Vietnamese insurgents came from the abbreviation VC (Victor Charlie) for Viet Cong.  I hadn't realized until I was researching this post that roger meaning 'OK' came from the use of the old radio alphabet's R to mean 'received'.

In closing, for a funny take on the way radio alphabets sound, I turn to no less a source than the early-90's Top Gun spoof Hot Shots!.  From the quotes page at IMDB:

Lt. Commander Block: Yankee Doodle Floppy Disk, this is Foxtrot Zulu Milkshake, checking in at 700 feet, request permission to land.
Jim 'Wash Out' Pfaffenbach: Roger that, Foxtrot Zulu Milkshake, you are cleared to land. Welcome to the Mediterranean!

Jim 'Wash Out' Pfaffenbach: Alpha Velveeta Knuckle Underwear, you are cleared for take-off. When you hit that nuclear weapons plant... drop a bomb for me!
Lt. Commander Block: Uh, Sphincter Mucus Niner Ringworm, roger!

If you want to see these in their original glory, somebody has uploaded all of Hot Shots! to YouTube in chunks (surely after writing to the studio for permission).  The lines above occur at 0:25 in this chunk and 0:27 in this chunk, respectively.  Enjoy.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I had assumed the er in niner was to differentiate it from Nan for N. Probably both.

Posted by: keith at May 1, 2008 5:37:08 AM

I was told in the army it was to keep 9 from sounding like 5. Since the old guys used Nancy, not Nan, that alternative never occurred to me.

Posted by: The Ridger at May 1, 2008 11:12:22 AM

There was some movie or TV show I saw recently (the last couple of years) in which a character used both niner and fiver, which strikes me as missing the point entirely. A quick googling shows that this misconception is pretty widespread. I especially enjoy this quote from a piece of JAG fanfic: "Zulu Bravo Epsilon niner niner fiver fourah". Epsilon? Fourah?

Posted by: The Tensor at May 1, 2008 1:51:19 PM

The BBC children's programme "In the Night Garden"
has three characters called the Tombliboos, whose names are "Un", "Ooo" and "Eee". Having children the age this programme is aimed at makes it possible for me to say things like "The Tombliboos were on the Pinky Ponk and they waved at the Hahoos," and expect people to understand me.

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at May 2, 2008 3:06:20 AM

Funny, only Mike and X-ray have lasted from the beginning. Wonder why? Especially Mike, since many of them seem to have been changed to avoid monosyllables (e.g., Fox > Foxtrot).

Posted by: language hat at May 2, 2008 11:32:42 AM

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over - my fave, altho Tango Uniform is a close second. I love the mil-speak on 2001 A Space Odyssey, 'specially from the Mission Control guy - they have a certain cadence that goes with the lingo. There's actually a lot of different ones from each military around the planet, Britian's being quite interesting. That doesn't include the police dept. ones that vary somewhat from city to city (see Adam 12) - our cop friend's wife once referred to someone as an Adam Henry, and all the other cop's wives rolled their eyes in agreement. It took a bit before I figured that one out.

Posted by: Vanwall at May 9, 2008 4:32:40 PM

"Was that a niner I heard?" We used to make so much fun of the niner. It sounds really funny when you draw out the "n" and say it in a slightly nasal tone.

Since military aren't allowed to swear in training much anymore, they frequently use phonetic stuff as a quick substitute to express the same idea "in code". "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" being "what the frag", "Tango Uniform" being "toes up" (or, less cleanly, "tits up"; it apparently relates to the way fish float belly-up) and "Charlie Foxtrot" being a "cluster frag". Where frag, of course, stands for the other F word.

Posted by: wench at Oct 20, 2008 1:56:09 PM

This article couldn’t have come at a better time. I literally just went full-time freelance last year. How I pictured my freelance life and how it’s actually turning out, I’m finding, are very different. Not only is “working when you want” a myth, but I actually feel insanely guilty for wasting a minute of my freelance time. It’s been a VERY hard adjustment, which I did not expect in the least.

Thanks for the article, it made what I’m going through feel… “normal”.

Posted by: xbash at Feb 26, 2009 7:02:22 PM