WTF: How Does the DMV Decide If a Vanity Plate Is Too Rude for the Road? | WTF | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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WTF: How Does the DMV Decide If a Vanity Plate Is Too Rude for the Road?


  • Photo Illustration: Don Eggert - Photo: © Joe Sohm | Dreamstime

Vermont may be famous for two of its sweetest products — maple syrup and Ben & Jerry's ice cream — but Vermonters can also be quite salty. In the state archives, no document is likely to be more infused with sex, drugs, violence, racism and vulgarity than the Department of Motor Vehicles' master list of rejected vanity plates.

A compendium of more than 24,000 alphanumeric combinations dating back decades, the DMV's do-not-issue list is hilarious, disturbing and bewildering. Why would anyone want a license plate that reads FEL0N, HITNRUN, IH8PIGS, IM2HI, M0LESTR or DRUNK?

The do-not-issue list is also a testament to the keen eyes of the DMV employees charged with spotting offensive words and phrases, some of which are recognizable only when read backwards, upside down or in another language. As DMV Deputy Commissioner Michael Smith explained by email, personalized plate applications are reviewed manually, not by computer software.

"In the 1990s I ran the telephone information unit, and all vanity plates were processed there," Smith wrote. "At that time, we had a three-inch stack of continuous-run paper — the old green stuff — that listed all the do-not-issue plates."

Later, the DMV converted to a searchable database that allows staff to look up potentially problematic tags, then edit entries as necessary.

"There are clearly some combinations that are on that list that are easily identifiable and clearly inappropriate," Smith wrote. "However, there are also a lot that are very creative."

Indeed, evaluating the applications requires both guesswork and a dirty mind. FRMASS could be for the car of a priest — or someone with strong glutes. The DMV assumed the latter and denied the request.

Though the do-not-issue list is organized alphabetically, rejected plates fall into one or more of the following categories: sexual, profane, insulting, racist, misleading, in poor taste, referring to alcohol or drugs, or violent. In some cases, the DMV explains in a separate column why the plate was rejected. For illustration, we've compiled a few examples in each category, with the DMV's explanations in parentheses when appropriate.

Among the most commonly denied requests are those with NC-17 content. They range from the obvious — COCK, DYKE, GAY, LICK, PUSSY, SEX — to the clever: 4NEK8R, ALPHAQ2, MYVBTR and 0NALL4S. Some are cryptic acronyms, including TMFWIC ("the motherfucking world is crazy"), LAGNAF ("let's all get naked and fuck") and GTF0MT ("get the fuck off my truck").

Requests for the number 69 get deep-sixed if they're not requested for a 1969 model vehicle. They included LXIX (69 in Roman numerals) and LXIXER (50 + 10 + 9 = 69er).

Some applicants tried to fly under the radar using their pets as cover. DOGSTYL, D0GNHET and RAWDOG all got put down. CATHSE and DCATSAS were also scratched.

Many seemingly benign words got rejected as sexual, including GRUNT, MEAT, NUD1ST, UNCUT, FMLYJUL and WEPUCK. P1MPLE likely got popped because the DMV won't issue tags that contain PIMP.

Racial terms, derogatory or not, automatically get booted, including 02BNAZ1, ARYAN, H0NKY, any version of the N-word, W0GG (a derogatory term for a Welshman) and variants of KKK. Neither ARAB nor JEW was considered kosher.

Non-English vulgarities also pinged the DMV's radar, including MERDE (French for "shit"), CABR0N (Spanish for "bastard"), PUTZ and SCHMUK (Yiddish for "penis") and ITSHAY (pig latin for "shit").

Even tame non-English words can get caught in the DMV's dragnet. They included PISHER, Yiddish for a young, presumptuous person; PYRRHA, a Greek town on the island of Lesbos; and PUCHKE, a Hindi and Bengali name that, according to the DMV note, is also "a term for genitalia."

The DMV doesn't allow any drug references, legal or illicit. WEED, COKE, HEROIN, M0RFEEN, OP1UM, XTC and LSD were denied, as were their resultant states: BUZZED, FRIED, STONED, WASTED and HLUCN8N. Allusions to the sale and consumption of drugs are also verboten, including 2GRAMS, KILOS, BONG and DOOBIE.

Despite Vermont's repeal of cannabis prohibition, HEMP and LEGALHI still aren't street legal for the DMV, nor are prescription drugs PROZAC, VIAGRA and XANAX. Even deep-in-the-weeds drug references such as PSNFR0G ("poison frog") and 1S0TEB ("in search of the eternal buzz") got snuffed out.

References to alcohol fare no better. The DMV cuts people off for applications that allude to beer, wine or spirits, from BOURBON and BUDWISR to ZIMA and ZINFNDL. FIREH2O, 12MANY and HANG0VR also got heaved, as did REDRUM, despite its more likely reference to Stephen King's The Shining.

Speaking of words spelled backward, the DMV caught 0ITALEF, EMKCUF and U0YKCUF, as well as 773411 ("Upside down reads II HELL," the DMV noted).

Requests that encourage or condone violence got axed, including 187AC0P (slang for homicide), DIESCUM, EETLEAD, GUN4HIR, KILLHER, MAFIA, P0STAL and VYLENT.

Some plates were rejected as "misleading," including 1STLADY, COPCAR, FBI, CIA and GOV. Also considered misleading was GOD, although G0DG0D, HEYG0D, G0DIS1 and V00D00 were approved. But WARG0D was deemed too violent, and SATAN and G0DSDED were judged "in poor taste." Neither 0HL0RD nor 1AMGOD got an amen.

Applicants have the right to challenge rejections, Smith explained. The entry for P00TZ, which was deemed in poor taste, includes the following explanation: "Fart — ruled against by hearing officer." Evidently, the applicant felt strongly enough about flatulence to appeal the denial.

Other applicants put up a legal fight. In April 2004, Vermonter Shawn Byrne applied for JN36TN, a reference to the Bible verse John 3:16. The DMV denied his request on the grounds that it violated Vermont's ban on plates that refer to deities or religions. According to court documents, that rule aims to "avoid disruption and distraction of drivers through controversial plates," as well as "the perception that the government favors certain ideas."

Byrne challenged the decision in U.S. District Court and lost. But in October 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Byrne v. Rutledge, reversed the lower court's decision and ruled in Byrne's favor. In its decision, the court wrote that "Vermont's ban on all religious messages in a forum it has otherwise broadly opened to a wide variety of subjects, including personal philosophy, affiliation and belief, serves not to restrict but instead to discriminate ... and, as such, is impermissible."

To be clear, state statute does indeed allow Vermonters to express their personal philosophies, tastes and affiliations. NRA, LUVGUNS and G0P have all appeared on Vermont plates, as have CH0ICE, DM0CRAT, LEFTIST, LESSOIL and TREHUGR.

However, some social or political commentary got nixed as offensive or insulting, including 0JDIDIT, FTHEG0P, MYW0MB, N0NUKE and TAXSSUK. Even RU486 and SAFESEX weren't protected from state censors.

Some of the DMV's explanations for denying an offensive plate acknowledge that the word or phrase also has an inoffensive meaning. BUGERED, a British vulgarity for anal sex and sodomy, was explained as "damned confounding," and BIGWAD was interpreted as "a mass or lump of something." While some people would read QU1MBY as a nod to the fictional mayor on TV's "The Simpsons," the DMV noted that it also means "the middle party in a gay threesome."

Other requests fell victim to apparent misinterpretation. The DMV rejected GOYIM (Hebrew and Yiddish for "gentiles") as "offensive to the Jews." BTTRFLY was denied for being urban slang for genitalia, and DIVRDWN, a common scuba diving expression, was interpreted as sexual.

Similarly, BLKLAB, BLKMAGC and BLKBUTY were rejected as "racial." YT was initially issued but, according to its DMV note, was later "removed from the street."

Finally, in case you're wondering, the DMV denied ASSMAN and ASSMANN. The accompanying notes read, "Seinfeld reference."

Gotta love Vermont's civil servants.

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