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Q From Sharlene Baker, USA: I’ve been getting space e-mails (a friend on the station) and it’s reminded me that I’ve been long pondering Roger that in the meaning of ‘I’ve heard what you’ve said’. I realize all occupations have their own buzzwords, and one can’t get distracted by them all, but this one’s well-known, and, well, why Roger? Why not Ginger or Daniel?

A They came from outer space ...

The word is definitely the proper name, but it’s not been chosen randomly. Nor was there a famous early radio operator named Roger, as some wit somewhere is probably at this moment trying to convince somebody. It all goes back to phonetic radio alphabets, designed to transmit words by spelling them out letter by letter over poor-quality circuits. The phonetic expressions are chosen to be as distinctive as possible to limit the risk of confusing them.

We’re so used to the internationally accepted Alpha, Bravo, Charlie ... X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu alphabet, dating from about 1955, that only the older among us remember that there were others that preceded it. In particular, the phonetic alphabets used by the US Navy and the Royal Air Force from about 1941 both used Roger as the standard abbreviation for the letter R. Some at different times used the very similar Robert, but we are most familiar with Roger because it was standard for a large part of the Second World War.

(A friend of mine many years ago had served in the RAF during the War — so long ago, he would say, that Pontius was a pilot. He once had to spell a word out to a telephone operator — this would have been about 1970 — and automatically used the Able, Baker, Charlie alphabet he had learnt in signals training. After he had finished, there was a little pause, then the operator said, very sweetly, “You are old-fashioned, aren’t you, sir”.)

The letter R, expanded to Roger, was used to mean message received, and had been in use in that sense ever since the early days of Morse code. Since the operator was often acknowledging receipt of a message on which he would have to act in some way, the response came not only to mean that he had received it, but that he had understood it, a subtle but crucial extension. (If he wanted to say explicitly that he would carry out an instruction, he would add wilco, short for “I will comply”. Hence all these handle-bar moustached aviators in films like The Dam Busters shouting “Roger, Wilco!” into their handsets before peeling off to do some deed of daring.)

This meaning for Roger became so stereotyped that it survived the shift to the international phonetic alphabet that almost everybody now uses, which instead has Romeo for R. It’s a good thing it only came in after the War: “Romeo, Wilco!” doesn’t have the same ring ...

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