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Prowords (wikipedia.org)
242 points by tosh on June 1, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 109 comments

My favorite part of this article is the reason for saying "SAY AGAIN" instead of "REPEAT".

  The word "REPEAT" should not be used in place of "SAY AGAIN", 
  especially in the vicinity of naval or other firing ranges, 
  as "REPEAT" is an artillery proword defined in ACP 125 U.S. 
  Supp-2(A) with the wholly different meaning of "request for the 
  same volume of fire to be fired again with or without corrections 
  or changes" (e.g., at the same coordinates as the previous round).[12]
You'd think something as destructive as artillery fire might be given a slightly longer and less common word...

Sometimes in real actions, you don't have that luxury for long phrases. For example, in professional gaming (Overwatch), you don't say "keep focus fire on Lucio". You only say "Lulululululu..." And keep repeating that.

Not like gaming is comparable to real combat, but a hundred milliseconds is a lot in life & death situations.

That is absolutely a fair point. Speaking as someone who does not have military experience, I can't speak to it. But it would make sense that if you have the time to wait for them to repeat the phrase, that the longer phrase "SAY AGAIN" could be used.

Whereas "REPEAT" might not involve the time luxury.

Been a while, but there’s an entire script you read when calling in artillery. It’s designed to be simple, so the dumbest joe can figure it out, and verifiable so that the chances for mistakes or releasing a round by accident are minimized.

Exactly. In the French Navy they even call it an artillery mass (like a church service). There are similar procedures for surface engagement by a fleet (but not used as much today because of tactical data links).

Minimizing the risk of a mistake and coordinating fire between units is more important in naval warfare than reaction time. In Anti Air Warfare it is different.

So true. "Meimeimeimeimeimei" and "doomdoomdoomdoomdoom" are my favourite ones when playing Zen.

Correct. I was in the Royal Australian Artillery corps for a number of years, and RATEL procedures (across all corps) drill this into you.

However it is unlikely to occur in practice - the artillery battery will (generally) be on a separate radio net, and the proword will only be applicable if you're in an active fire mission - though it's good to be safe. My wife still gets frustrated with my use of SAY AGAIN.

When you get a good sig on each end, the speed of fire mission comms is a thing of beauty - and once the mission is opened both ends will drop all callsigns.

What's "a good sig"? And what do you mean by "once the mission is opened " and "will drop all callsigns"?

"a good signal" // "once the (firing) mission has begun" // "no longer address each other by name, and instead simply use keywords as the recipient / originator are obvious" (ie it's one person transmitting to a lot of receivers)

Almost, "a good sig" is a good signaler - the operator of the radio. It takes a bit of skill and when you get one on each end that can get into a good rhythm it's fantastic.

Yes, the fire mission (FM) will be opened by the FO (Forward Observer), and then they'll drop the callsigns - so something like this:

2 this is 21, fire mission battery, over. 21 this is 2, fire mission battery, out. # from here they will go to abbreviated callsigns, so just stating theirs (it has been a while since I've done the FO's sequence of orders so it may be out a bit :)). 21, grid 12345678, range 1000, bearing 3759, over. # and now they drop them completely so 2 will respond with the readback: grid 12345678, range 1000, bearing 3759, out.

When it's bad, you want a VERY quick way of saying "shoot it again."

The "repeat" vs "say again" distinction is so ingrained that I've been out of the military for a decade and I still always, only say "say again." I don't do it on purpose, it's just part of me now.

My father, fifty years out of the navy, would still always say “Say again” if he didn’t hear you.

I also use "say again" in regular conversation, and I've never been in the military. I picked it up from living in Singapore for a few years. Some of the short, simplified, not-always-grammatical phrases used in Singlish work great for communication - distinct enough to be understood despite the speaker's accent, few fluff words so that they can be parsed easily and spoken easily. Very close to the goals of the military and NATO in that regard.

Some Singlish vocabularly actually derives from nautical English. The port has been important for a long time.

See eg https://www.angmohdan.com/origins-of-gostan/ (and also http://www.mysmu.edu/faculty/jacklee/singlish_G.htm)

I lament that most people speaking to an ang moh like me code-switch to the Queen's English instead of sticking to proper Singlish.

We often forbid operators the use of "repeat", and we find ourselves using only "say again" on the phone, especially when the link is bad or the other speaker difficult to understand. Imagine speaking to a Pakistani or a Portuguese over a satellite phone.

When I'm stressed, I go back to saying affirmative/negative instead of yes/no.

That actually explains why quite a few people I know tend to use that form in a way that, to me, sounds pretty rude - it's probably just natural for them.

Fantastic. I was just telling the commentor before you that I do not have a military background. I'm glad you could weigh in. That makes complete sense.

Interesting to know.

I often use say again, but I use it because of of Limoncelly and Hogans book, "the Practice of Systems and Networks Administration" where they (or someone they refer to) suggest it works better in noisy environments.

I guess they have worked with someone with experience from the army..?

The thing that jumped out at me, and isn't explained in this article or the linked ones, is that all of the distress-related prowords are French and none of the others are. Specifically, they're French-derived but spelled as if in English ("MAYDAY", "SEELONCE").


See also PAN-PAN, from the French 'panne' meaning breakdown.

The story I was told behind the origin of these was that they evolved from British <-> French air traffic and was a reasonably logical thing that everybody agreed on and could pronounce intelligibly for the other party.

Edit to add: English is the official international language for naval/aviation communication. Having really important words in another language makes them stand out and hard to say by mistake.

- French was the language of the ITU and its predecessors. - On HF radio you need words that can be distinguished very clearly and not mistaken for somethkng else.


I think these particular words are older than many of the other ones. Also French-derived is CQ, which comes from the French sécurité. These phrases date back to when French was used much more as an international language.

I think it's to help Brad Pitt when he tries to speak those lines in his Southern accent.




I am of the belief that all adults should memorize this list (including pronunciation, they are slightly different than the normal words).

It’s not onerous and can be done in a few minutes, and if nothing else will save you from sounding like a fool when spelling things over the phone (“a like apple, c like cat”). They are standard for a reason.

What I don't really like about the list is that if you don't know the list (which many people don't) then some of them are such unintuitive examples that they will catch a decent number of people off-guard and force you to repeat. Or, you know, the other way around. If we're using words as obscure as "Yankee" and "Zulu" (I wonder how many people have even heard these words, especially non-natives and English learners across the globe?), you'd think maybe sticking with a few categories would've made things easier and more intuitive? e.g. if we're using "K for Kilo" (which itself seems kind of bizarre in North America) then you'd think other natural choices would be "M for Mega", "G for Giga", "T for Ten", etc. which everyone speaking English (and then some) would've heard of... but nope, instead they're Mike, Golf, and Foxtrot (?!) of all things. They seem targeted specifically toward people to whom all the words come naturally and who've ideally learned the list. No wonder people don't go out of their way to learn them.

The words are chosen so that they sound dissimilar to each other, and they have an unamibiguous spelling and and pronounciation. They also ideally need to be words that won't come up in normal speech. The actual meaning is irrelevant.

So mega/giga would be undesirable as they sound similar, and beceause many people pronounce giga as "jigga". And "Ten" is just terrible, what is someone is reading out an alphanumeric string?

> many people pronounce giga as "jigga".

Do they? I do, because it is the correct pronunciation (the hard G only became prevalent after hard drives grew to GB sizes and Americans unfamiliar with the French system of units mispronounced the prefix), but I am literally the only one I have ever heard use it in person, and the only other instance I have heard it pronounced correctly is by Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown in Back to the Future.

Why do I persist when everyone around me pronounces it incorrectly? Indeed, if everyone else pronounces a word a different way, are they right and am I wrong? I guess I just like tilting at windmills, I guess!

Also GIF has a soft g …

The French pronounciation is the "Correct" pronounciation? Wait 'till you hear how Greeks pronounce "Giga" and "Mega"- Greek words meaning "giant" and "large" :)

... or how we pronounce "gamma", for that matter.

(See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_velar_fricative)

No. You cannot pronounce a graphic standard's acronym in a way that might confuse it with my peanut butter.

> The words are chosen so that they sound dissimilar to each other

Not just that, but to sound dissimilar to each other in all sorts of accents and regional dialects.

Oh come on. Ten is terrible because someone might be reading out an alphanumeric string? You can say that about other stuff already on that list. What if they're just reading out names? Then Charlie and Mike will be confusing. What if they're reading months? Then November will be confusing. What if they're reading countries? Then India will be confusing...

The particular choice of words wasn't even my point, and of course I get the dissimilarity thing. If "Ten" bothers you then just choose "Tom" or whatever. I know I've never seen anyone say jigga instead of giga, but if you have, then just pick another word. My point was about having a common theme to help make the list intuitive, not that "Ten" and "Mega" are inherently better than "Tango" or "Mike".

The list was designed for people who are going to train extensively to get them right, and for situations where mistakes can kill people.

You could probably develop an easier-to-comprehend list for everyday use, although I’m not persuaded by your complaints that the existing list isn’t suitable.

Yeah, the list is great when you're working with other people that have also learned the list. We use it in emergency communications and it's definitely way less mentally taxing and less confusing all using the same alphabet.

I'd say at least half the time when I use it talking to some call centre employee I lose them about two letters in to whatever I'm trying to spell.

That said, if there was a great replacement that would probably be in use instead. It's not just a list of words that happen to start with those letters, it's a list of words that do not sound similar to each other, are unambiguous as to what letter they represent, and maintain those qualities in a wide variety of accents and dialects.

Some use name expansion and it's intuitive: M for Michael, T for Thomas. Though properly covering latin alphabet with english phonetics can be challenging. What name should correspond to A? Arven?


I came across and learned the phonetic alphabet when I was 11 or so (in this wonderful video game which was tons of fun for the time: https://www.gog.com/game/independence_war_2), and I can honestly say it's come in handy a surprisingly high amount of times in my life since. Agreed with your recommendation :)

I learned the phonetic alphabet around high school age. I think I found it printed in the instruction manual for Microsoft Flight Simulator or something like that.

I know the NATO phonetic alphabet, but still don't use it. It confuses the hell out of people, especially in other languages.

I also tend to forget letters, leading to something like "bravo uniform xylophone"

> I also tend to forget letters

That used to happen to me too, then I studied it more, and would periodically spell words in my head using it until I recognized which letters I'd forget (kilo, lima, mike, november), then studied those some more.

Total time spent memorizing it fully probably sums to less than an hour over a couple years.

> I also tend to forget letters

So then you don't actually know the alphabet. Knowing implies you know all the letters and can recall them at will at any point in time, - that's what makes it useful. Of course if your forget some letters, that will just make the whole thing more cumbersome than just using letters.

I can name them, but perhaps not out of blue during a phone call. It's stored deep in the back, along with the position of stars and the lyrics of Disney songs.

Really? I've found it enormously helpful when communicating alphanumeric strings (like, say, license keys) over the phone with support people in countries where English is not the primary language.

How exactly "a like apple, c like cat" is worse than "a like alpha, c like Charlie"?

One of the keys to the success of the NATO phonetic alphabet is the disambiguation across various accents.

Let's say you're talking with someone who doesn't have a distinct V or W in their native tongue. Victor pronounced Wictor and Whisky pronounced Visky are sufficiently different from each other.

If you're making it up on the fly you could easily pick a word that could be confused for another. Vine/wine, while/vial, etc.

The same goes for F/S across links that can't support the higher frequencies and L/R in some Asian languages.

It's worse because it's really easy to come up with a word that is hard to understand in unclear communications conditions and thus either remains ambiguous or, worse, suggests the wrong resolution of ambiguity to the listener. Standard phonetic alphabets like the NATO one are designed so that the words and pronunciations are very highly unambiguous even if the listener isn't familiar with the phonetic alphabet, and even moreso if the listener is familiar the alphabet.

It's also worse because if you have two speakers who are familiar with the use of a phonetic alphabet, you don't have to do “‘a' is in...”, you just spell out “Alpha Romeo Tango India Sierra Tango” (no, I have no idea why I picked that word for an example.)

I'm not sure it's so great when the listener doesn't know the NATO alphabet. A number of the words sound very similar to other english words, and some of the words are obscure.

For example, Charlie (pronounced char-lee or shar-lee) could be confused with barley, Karlie, hardly, Shirley, etc. Mike rhymes with dozens of words.

If you don't know the word 'sierra' you might be wondering, "was that fierra? Ciara? Tiara?"

I think using longer, simple words like,

Alphabet, Banana, Computer, Direction, Elephant, etc.

would be better for lay people. They're unambiguous and well-known.

> For example, Charlie (pronounced char-lee or shar-lee) could be confused with barley, Karlie, hardly, Shirley, etc.

The beauty of the phonetic alphabet is that there's nothing else on the phonetic alphabet that can be confused with "Charlie" regardless of how a non-English speaker pronounces it. If everyone is using the same phonetic alphabet, then the confused entity learns that "Sharlie/Shirley/hardly" stands in for "C."

Yep, that's my point. It was designed assuming both people know the phonetic alphabet. It's not so great when you're trying to use it over the phone with a tech support person who isn't familiar with the alphabet.

Yup, British postal codes are alphanumeric and I've never had a call center worker not follow when I read mine beginning "Sierra Oscar" rather than trying to just say the letters SO clearly enough. The codes are deliberately unambiguous (e.g. zero and the letter O can't occur in the same position) but it's less likely someone understands that and incorporates it into their parsing than that they're familiar with the NATO alphabet.

Ideally, you use the appropriate proword: "I SPELL Alpha Romeo Tango India Sierra Tango".

I believe the use of the pronunciation ‘niner’ instead of ‘nine‘ was because nine could be too easily confused with ‘five’.

And ‘port’ replaced ‘larboard’ in the 19th century to avoid confusion. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_and_starboard

But also, five is pronounced "fife." Tree, fow-er, fife.

In the US Navy, because 5 sounds like fire, it's skipped when doing a countdown over a ship's PA system (called the 1MC). Countdowns are done for switching timezones/synchronizing watches, etc.

You know that scene in Archer where he spells "M as in Mancy" over the radio because he doesn't know the phonetic alphabet?

I've legitimately had that with phone operators. Just a couple of weeks ago I had a CSR spell out "D for Doris" over an atrocious phone line.

Or was it "T for torus"? Seems a pretty bad choice, unless there was context that it was always names or something.

The informal civilian convention does indeed use given names. The names themselves are not standardized though so it's not a very good system.

I had heard B for Boris, so there's that. :)

If only there were some kind of standard of which names to give for which letter, eh?

It's a feature that you can use it without learning anything.

I always do M for mnemonic when spelling my name. A for aisle etc..

On that note, I rather like this list: https://web.cs.dal.ca/~jamie/Words/alphabet.html





And it gets worse!

Oh my god, this is brilliant. "S as in Serial" and "Y as in You" are two I'll definitely be using if I want to be annoying.

— "M for menemonic, I for isle", roger. — No, my name is not Roger

When your ear is ready to match against one of 26 known phonetics, it is possible to do so even with very high noise. I might only pick up “...orm” but I’ll know it’s “uniform” (U) because it couldn’t be the other 25.

“C like cat” is easy to misinterpret as “b like bat”, e.g. Granted, barley could be confused for Charlie over a poor transmission, but that’s why they’re standardized.

As a worst case scenario, when somebody asked for clarification between 'm' and 'n', I responded with "m as in mnemonic". Not only did it fail to resolve the question, it was perhaps the worst word I could have chosen.

Also given that Foxtrot and Zulu are relatively uncommon words you might cause more confusion if this was used with a layperson.

The 1980 movie "Airplane" spoofs prowords with this dialog between Captain Clarence Oveur, co-pilot Roger Murdock, flight navigator Victor Basta, and the airport tower: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080339/quotes/qt0484135

I was surprised that in the communications during the recent Dragon docking, they seemed to have the initial station designations reversed: first stating who is calling, followed by who is called. Also when Dragon crew was reporting poor call quality over the hardline, I don't think they used the phrases listed in the article.

edit: and also how/why it took them so long to resolve the apparent misunderstanding at some point, where the Russian crew on the ISS seemed to believe they were being called out by the ground crew.

I'm many years out of the Navy, but we were trained to say the addressee's ID first so that the addressee would hear the ID and pay attention to the rest.

In the early 1960s there was a TV series, Combat!, about a WWII U.S. Army infantry squad in France; Vic Morrow, playing Sgt. Saunders, would often say, e.g., "Checkmate King 2, this is White Rook, over." (Weird that I remember that, almost 60 years on ....)

I unfortunately didn't get to watch the launch or docking, but I know in (american) ham radio and CW (morse code) usually on the opening/first transmission your callsign is the first thing you say. If you callsign was K1QT, for example, you might say:

  K1QT calling CQ CQ

  K1QT calling K1HTL

In amateur practice "<call> calling <call>" is sometimes used for phone, especially UHF/VHF, perhaps out of the ARRL's stated preference for communications being clear and easy to understand without reliance on jargon or convention.

However, especially on other modes and even with phone in most cases, the standard is "<call> <call>". This is more or less derived from morse operating practice where the prosign "DE" means "this is" or "from," and the typical way of calling another station was "<call> DE <call>" (or perhaps "<call> DE <call> GA"). Naturally the DE was dropped in many cases and it became just the two calls in sequence with an implied DE.

There is actually no regulatory requirement to state call sign at the beginning of a conversation, although it's standard to because, well, it's nice to know who you're talking to. FCC regulations do require each party to state their call sign at the end of a conversation, usually as "<call> SK" in the case of morse or "<call> clear" in the case of phone, although I'd say use of the "clear" proword is somewhat more variable. I've always had a certain dislike for "we'll be clear" as this is a bit confusing to newcomers, less so than "clear on your final" although that seems more formal.

I assume that, like most radio conventions, this originated in naval use, as the convention is the same in at least aviation and public safety.

Is there a specific region where this is more common? I've only heard "<dest> this is <source>", never "<source> calling <dest>".

In Canada, can also confirm "<dst> <src>" is standard (I think it was one of the possible questions on the exam). And my understanding is that it's at least best practice in the US as well. At least the ARRL's "Making Your First Contact"[0] page lists it in that format.

The idea being whoever's on the other end is not actively listening until they hear their own call sign. If you say your own call sign first, you're just going to create confusion because all they're going to actually pick up is that they were called and have to "Person calling <X> come again..."

[0] http://www.arrl.org/making-your-first-contact

Thanks for the link -- I tried searching the web but couldn't find a canonical source, and my amateur radio guide book is at my office. :~)

It's far more common to hear the opposite, e.g.

W1AW this is W3DZZ


CQ CQ this is W1AW

in amateur radio.

Do you have a link to this communication?

Uhhh, so as to the initial order of called vs. caller, it seems they're actually correct, and it was actually me being civilian and having reverse expectation; sorry!

As to the hardline related communications, I'm trying to find a good point in the recording. For now I managed to find the eventual successful contact attempt here: https://youtu.be/zNklfC6jgBs?t=10746; I'll try to rewind and find esp. the earlier Endeavour responses & the Russian responses.

edit: Ok, here's some early fun with Russians: https://youtu.be/zNklfC6jgBs?t=6085, not yet sure if that's the 1st one but definitively a sample of what I meant. Still looking for more. edit 2: A bit more just seconds later: https://youtu.be/zNklfC6jgBs?t=6616

In your link to t=6085, I can't make out what the Russian voice is saying until he's counting. Can someone transcribe?

If you check SpaceX's stream on YouTube, they check the hardline communications with the Dragon capsule multiple times in the hour or so after hard capture.

My personal favorite from my time in the Marines didn't seem to make the list. Interrogative. Nothing more frustrating than to ask a time-sensitive question and be met with silence.

How is that used?

You just say "interrogative" before your question. See here, 0:17 https://youtube.com/watch?v=oquZP7saqoE

Huh, thanks!

Can anyone comment where the common phrase "OVER AND OUT" comes from, if it is not used in this scheme at all.

Most likely from movies and other pop culture. Real radio code is intentionally stiff so movie screenwriters try and make it sound right but more friendly.

Ive heard that it is essentially a joke or insult. You are saying "you can carry on talking but I'm not listening".

This probably originates from half duplex communication where the sending side indicates they are done sending by saying over. In the military, the ranking side is entitled to end the conversation by adding "out"

The article talks about it, how it never makes sense to say both because the phrases are redundant and contradictory. You would either say one or the other to indicate that you have finished speaking, your choice indicating if you intend to hear a response or not.

Not 100% but I learned that it's bad form because "out" subsumes "over" so saying them together is redundant.

The linked page very clearly states they are opposites. Over indicates an expectation for response, out does the opposite.

Not just redundant. "Over" means you're done talking now, so you shouldn't say anything else afterwards, even "and out".

You don't say that, you either say "over" (I've finished talking, go ahead and talk more yourself) or you say "out" (I'm done talking on the radio now, bye).

You seem to be downvoted, which is strange even though the article says:

> Contrary to popular belief, "OVER" and "OUT" are never used at the same time, since their meanings are mutually exclusive.

I guess the question here is why is it a popcultural phrase?

I can only guess it was from Hollywood, but in the military no one uses it because it's wrong. People down vote for several reasons, but I don't worry about that usually, I'm just here to talk to others a bit and read about technology.

Interesting to hear a few variants from this used in the recent Dragon launch.

"good readback" to confirm that the other side has correctly readback the information just sent "go for ..." you have approval to...

but more often speaking relatively normally: they were having some problems with the hardline, at one point Dragon saying:

"that was an improvement but, uh, completely unreadable"

Most of the listed words/phrases are common in aviation so I’m not surprised to see them used in aerospace too!

Since this is Hacker News, I can only assume that the one who posted this is suggesting that we should have incorporated some of this vocabulary into our network protocols --- which would have been utterly cool.

We have our own: the RFC language of SHOULD and MUST.

The obsolete TELNET protocol ( https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc854 ) has DO/DONT/WILL/WONT which match up nicely.

Network protocols? I was thinking videoconferencing calls.


> However, a few are used frequently enough in media to be memorable, including ABORT, BOGEY, BANDIT, FEET WET, FEET DRY, NEGATIVE CONTACT, and NO JOY.

These don't seem to be described in the article. Did I miss something? Does anyone have a similar description for these?

They are described in the linked article: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiservice_tactical_brevit...

of which TALLY appears to go back to the XIII https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tally-ho#Etymology

People should also adopt the "five" vs "niner" idiom from aviation to disambiguate those two numbers.

Fun fact, the donkey that was the model for Donkey in Shrek was named Niner, and lived in Palo Alto.

> People should also adopt the "five" [sic] vs [sic] "niner" idiom

I assume you mean 'fife' and? Also not just from aviation, general (military) radio, and other uses of the NATO phonetic alphabet.

It used to be fi-ive (rhyming 'I seive') but changed, I believe/as I recall, due to sounding too close to 'fire'.

Interesting are also ACP-131 3-Letter codes (Q and Z). The CPO's favourite : ZBM: Place a competent operator on this link.

Ah, that's where the name of Space Quest character came from :) .

"It's more than 500 feet out? over."

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