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Ten-Four

October 4, 2019

By Jim Rhodes

As I write this column, my calendar says the date is 10/4/19, at least in America. In most of the rest of the world, it’s 4/10/19. But that would ruin the subject of this rant, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I go with the American usage.

Today’s subject is “ten-four.”

When I was a lad in the 1950s, one of our favorite prime-time television shows (in black-and-white of course) was called “Highway Patrol,” starring Broderick Crawford. Whenever he talked on the radio in his squad car, the chief would begin the call and sign off with “ten-four.”

Later, in the 70s the phrase morphed its way into popular culture during the CB radio boom as a sort of omnibus slang for “OK.”

Being a lifelong word nerd, I have wondered through the years about the phrase’s origins. So, I did a little research on the subject.

Here’s what I found.

The phrase ten-four dates back to a time when voice radio channels were unreliable and patchy at best, beset by static and frequent outages. The talker often couldn’t always be sure the listener heard and understood what was said on the air, and the listener might misinterpret the message with results that could be catastrophic for a police officer in hot pursuit.

In 1937, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) proposed recommendations to create shorthand codes for often-used phrases. A communications director for the Illinois State Police was said to be the first to develop what became known as the “10 Codes,” which were eventually embraced uniformly by law enforcement communicators in the 1950s. A few examples:

10-1       Receiving poorly

10-2       Receiving well

10-4       Message received and acknowledged

10-9       Repeat your last transmission, say again

10-13     Prisoner in custody

10-20     What’s your location? (This also found its way into CB slang usage as in “What’s your 20?”)

10-33     Emergency, send help

There were eventually scores of individual 10 Code abbreviations.

In recent years, as radiotelephony improved with the advent of digital technology, the 10 Codes have been phased out in favor of plain English in many jurisdictions, but they still persist in some places.

When I went to U.S. Navy Boot Camp in 1969, I learned a different “radiospeak” language, which is used in military communications. Their origin was similar to that of the 10 Codes in that they were created to standardize and simplify common phrases to avoid confusion. On simplex (one way) radio channels only one person could speak at a time. The listener would have to wait until the speaker cleared the channel before replying. To avoid stepping on each other’s virtual toes, certain protocols were adopted and made mandatory for international radiotelephony.

Thus …

“Over” means “I’ve finished talking, and now it’s your turn.”

“Out” means “This is the end of the conversation, I am disconnecting now.”

“Roger” means “I understand what you just said, and I acknowledge receipt.” Attentive readers will no doubt recognize this is the same basic meaning as “10-4.” (I’ll return to this question in a minute.)

“Wilco” means “I will comply with your last instructions.” Often used with “Roger.”

“Mayday” means “This is a life-threatening emergency.”  It is derived from the French “m’aidez.”

I also had to learn what was called the phonetic alphabet, in which each letter is expressed as a word starting with that letter, and to this day I can still recite it in my sleep. (I also learned Morse Code, but that’s a different story.) In the phonetic alphabet the letter A is pronounced Alfa, B is Bravo, C is Charlie and so forth. This scheme was adopted to minimize misunderstanding when communicating over poor-quality shortwave radio channels. For instance, the spoken letter B can sound a lot like P. The same goes for M and N and C and Z. This could result in a disastrous misunderstanding if the commanding officer says over the radio, “Go immediately to coordinates M3B1 and engage the enemy,” and the sergeant sends his platoon to N3P1 instead.

This usage became standardized during World War II. A was Able, B was Baker, C was Charlie, D was Dog, and so forth. Unfortunately, many Allied forces used their own variants. You can imagine the confusion that could occur when American and British fleets were maneuvering their ships tactically together. So, after the war the phonetic alphabet was revised and standardized under an international convention.

You may wonder, reading the above paragraphs, why Alfa is misspelled. The answer is that it is spelled with an F because in many languages the PH combination is not pronounced as F. Likewise Juliett is spelled with two Ts, to accommodate speakers of French, in which a final single T would be silent resulting in “Juliyay.”

All of which brings us back to “Roger.” You may ask, “Where did that come from?” The answer is that in the WWII era, “Roger” was the phonetic word for the letter “R” (long since changed to “Romeo”) which was short for ‘Received.”

And with that, I’ll sign off. Ten-four. Out.