Zeroing in on Postcodes

On a recent visit my brother-in-law complained to me that he had had terrible  problems with an insurance company which refused to acknowledge his existence.  At first I shared his puzzlement – especially as he was sitting in front of me – but as he recounted the conversation I suddenly realised the problem.

He had been trying to access his records online, but was consistently denied access, being told that he could not possibly live where he did. When he finally rang up to resolve the issue he repeated the postcode and was immediately able to access his records via an agent. And it was at this point that it was pointed out to him what you too may by now have realised :when trying to access his account he was using an “O” instead of a zero (0).  And computer say no!

This set me thinking how odd it is that the admirable postcode system used in this country includes the zero anyway.  For anyone not familiar with our system I should explain that we (broadly) use a six or seven-digit code, with the first half made up of two letters to denote a town or city plus one or two digits to indicate districts in that area: so someone in the centre of Newcastle would be NE1, whereas out in the country here, 20 miles out, we are NE46.  Then after that the system is rather more arbitrary, but almost always has three characters, a numeral plus two letters, which allows sorting offices, advertisers and satnavs to drill down and identify particular streets or indeed parts of streets.  It’s great.

But since there are so many permutations for that second section of the code, why use the potentially ambiguous zero?  (The reason it’s ambiguous is because for some strange reason British people don’t say”zero”, but o as in “oh” when it comes to phone numbers, and then postcodes.)  However, I believe most districts use only a few numbers anyway, and rely on the letters to indicate location. My brother-in-law’s case can’t be unique.  On the one hand it’s quite alarming that there are still people out there who don’t know how their postcode is made up, but equally it wouldn’t have taken much to avoid the confusion.  It’s too late to change things now – it creates havoc with bank accounts, passport applications, proof of identity, etc – so maybe a little investment in an advertising programme would help.  Along the lines of: “When is an ‘o’ not an ‘o’?”…





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