The old joke goes, “Please tell your father to call me back, Jim Clew. That’s C as in crocodile, L as in leopard, E as in elephant…” “Sorry, E as in what?”

Meanwhile, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in case you’re young and innocent) has its own 26-word phonetic alphabet, one that’s engraved into every pilot’s brain, even if, like me, you haven’t flown in 30 years. From Alfa-Bravo-Charlie to Xray-Yankee-Zulu, the NATO system is unambiguous and easily-memorized, used by pilots and dispatchers and airline ticket agents the world over. Developed over several decades, iteration after iteration, the NATO phonetic alphabet was finalized in 1956 and universally adopted by virtually all groups needing to communicate precisely by radio or telephone. It’s particularly useful for airline pilots and air traffic controllers, for whom accurate communication can mean life or death. (I learned to fly in a PA-28 Cherokee whose code letters “Tango-Romeo-Bravo” sounded — and sound — so cool when pronounced in a plummy Oxford accent.)

Even though it’s been generally adopted, not everything is totally uniform (or Uniform, that being the NATO signifier for “U”). For instance, in this country you’ll often see “Alpha” and “Juliet” written instead of the official NATO “Alfa” and “Juliett.” Wisely, the creators of the NATO alphabet recognized that “ph” isn’t universally spoken as “f”; and that native French speakers, for instance, drop the “t” in Juliet when speaking, hence the double “t.”

NATO Phonetic Alphabet and International Code of Signals (Public domain)

I grew up on the Morse Code — or at least learned it when my brain was sufficiently flexible (in the Boy Scouts) to be able to still remember it pretty well, although I’m now much slower than decades ago. In the mid-1830s, artist Samuel Morse figured out a way to send numbers over a telegraph line, the idea being that operators would use a codebook to translate letters to numbers and vice-versa. Within a few years, mechanical engineer Alfred Vail came up with an early version of what is now the International Morse Code, skipping the numbers and going straight to letters.

Vail based his code of dots and dashes on the frequency of letters, so that “e” (the most common letter in English) is represented by a single dot; “a” by dot-dash; s by three dots; and “o” (surely an outlier?) by three dashes. Hence SOS = dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit. Vail and Morse were the first two operators on Morse’s experimental telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore in 1844; sadly, they subsequently had a falling out over patent rights.

(When I say I learned Morse Code, I was strictly a klunky amateur. Today the Boy Scouts of America award a “Morse interpreter’s strip” for sending and receiving at a rate in excess of five words per minute, a painfully slow method of communication. Typically, operators during WW2 would send and receive at 70-100 words per minute.)

Another code, still used (very) occasionally for ships at sea, is the International Code of Signals, adopted for worldwide use in 1901. You can see an example of this in Old Town on the F Street pier, greeting everyone and anyone to our fair city. I’ll leave it to you to figure out exactly what these 15 flags say.

Photo: Barry Evans.