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Alpha to Zulu

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Two weeks ago, I wrote a short post drawing attention to a post by Mark Liberman at Language Log. Underlying his post (and mine, though I didn’t have much to add) is the standard letter code used in radio communications, the one in which a word or name is attached to each letter — alpha to ‘a’, bravo to ‘b’, and so on.

I always wanted to commit the code to memory. I figured it would be handy. I love listening to flight controllers using it when I fly United. (You know, you can plug in headphones on planes with audio systems and listen on channel 9, provided the pilot lets you, as the controllers whose frequency the pilot is on tell planes what to do. “Delta 823, descend to 7000 and head 120. United 35 heavy [That’s us!] descend to 3000, follow the 757 ahead of you, cleared for landing.” Or whatever. I can never get Gail to listen. It’s great to hear a change in your heading, then feel the plane bank and descend. And then, when you land and switch over to the controllers in charge of taxiing, they tell you to taxi to Bravo Romeo 60, or some such thing. I could be a better listener if only I knew the code.

Not only that, I would know what to say on the phone when I have to spell something or recite letters. This just happened last night, when I was talking to a JetBlue representative about Joel’s cancelled flight and she asked for the flight’s confirmation number. Well, it’s not a number. It’s six letters. But she must have known that, so I didn’t argue that it’s not a number. I read the letters. And when I said ‘D’, she heard ‘B’. What to do. I said “D as in Denver”. Why Denver? If only I thought to say “Delta”.

I will now. This afternoon, I typed out the list of code words, printed it out, and worked on memorizing it. My memory has generally served me well over the years, but not when it comes to straight memorization of lists like this. I can repeat details of conversations with accuracy. I can’t learn song lyrics or poems. I can name the US presidents in order, but I have a context for that. History. Thanks to a very coarse knowledge of US history, I know not only the presidents but when their terms began and ended. A list of 26 random words and names is more of a challenge for me.

I wasn’t making much progress until Gail got home from Costco. I gave her the list and had her test me. I failed miserably. Then I took back the list, suggested that she try, and she proceeded to out-do me. We went back and forth on it, and after our practice session, I could do it. This is great. Now I can’t wait for my next opportunity to read out letters to someone on the phone.

Next up: memorize the 32 teams in the 2010 World Cup soccer draw, in their eight groups of four. After the draw was set a couple of weeks ago, I printed it out and posted it above my desk at home. The countdown clock at the official website tells me that I have 171 days and 18 hours to complete my task.

Categories: Language, Sports, Travel