TODAY’S JOKE, TOMORROW’S FAUX PAS
Is it time to ditch personalized licence plates?
Licence plates are a tricky business. In 2013, New Brunswick screwed up in its regular-issue plates (the only type that province allows), allowing 1,000 of them with a letter combination containing the offensive “JAP” to carry on through. They were pulled back after complaints of racism, and I’m hard pressed to believe they ever got through in the first place. I’ve never seen a car sporting “ZIT” or “BUGR” on provincially issued plates. They know when to skip a combination.
Quebec only last year began issuing personalized licence plates, finally updating computer equipment. Thus far, they ask that people refrain from ordering anything that is “morally objectionable.” Oh, Quebec; you are at the start of a long and winding road.
Part of the problem is that licensing bodies need crystal balls to go along with the brass ones of some of their applicants. It’s human nature to try to challenge the system, to get something past the teacher. The list of rejected plates all over the world is long and humorous, and often flat-out creepy. I prefer the inspired ones that take the entire plate into play, including the provincial or state wordings. Years ago, Virginia had “kids first” as its state slogan; someone got EATTHE stamped into their metal plate. It took years for the state to realize the implication and yank them back.
That’s something to keep in mind. You pay a premium for personalized plates in the provinces and territories where they’re available, but they remain the property of the issuing body. Recent headlines found a man in Nova Scotia prepared to battle in court to keep a plate sporting his family name from being confiscated. He’s had it since 1991. The problem? His last name is Grabher, and while I’m sure it raised a few eyebrows in previous years, the current president of the U.S. has hauled that particular phrase down into the mud and rolled around with it on a global stage. Sorry, Lorne Grabher.
I got my sister vanity plates for Christmas the year they were issued here in Ontario. The excitement as she opened the box was palpable for both of us, a 23-year-old getting such a cool present. My father was less cool when she held them up. ROZ, they declared. And underneath? Yours to discover. He didn’t have the same recall power as the province, and the plates stayed.
Governing bodies put committees in place to review applications, and most regions report reject rates at around three per cent; most plates are fine. But the Internet has produced an explosively fertile ground for the growth of slang. What was OK a few years ago, or even months, can turn on a dime. How do you keep up with it? It’s one thing to say no to anything with sexual connotations/ slang/advertising, drug/alcohol connotations, criminal connotations, general or derogatory slang, racial/ ethnic slang or political connotations, but how hard is it to police it?
Committees have to do Google searches and hit translator sites, much as car manufacturers do when naming a car. If the request means something rude in Ukrainian, it’ll be stubbed out. Increasingly, however, it’s sites like Urban Dictionary that are needed to stay current. The online reference site moves as fast as our changing culture, often setting it. If Urban Dictionary says it’s rude, your chances just tumbled. Of course, what might be OK today could enter the alter-vernacular in a year or two, and your once innocent plate could still be retrieved.
For all the binary nerds who tried to get 1000101, they’ve caught on. In fact, California has expressively stated it will not issue any plates with “69” in them unless that is the year of the car, but thanks for trying.
A Star Trek fan in Manitoba had a plate yanked that said “ASIMIL8.” He’d had it two years, also sporting a plate cover with Star Trek slogans. Fans would get the reference, but the province finally deemed it was insensitive and offensive to indigenous people where that word is loaded with a back history that shouldn’t be forgotten, and certainly not tossed around.
Most of our jurisdictions run applications through a gamut of meanings tests, and also consider the combination being read upside down or in a mirror. In most cases they stay ahead, but the Manitoba plate triggered cries about free speech.
I called Saskatchewan to see how it handled plate issuances. The rules line up with most other regions, though I especially like the second line:
“All slogans are checked in Urban Dictionary, Google search, Wikipedia and translation sites. If a slogan is found to be from a language the issuer is not familiar with, we may approach an elder or a contact from that community,” said Tyler McMurchy of Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). Nine members of that group — all multicultural with multiple levels of education and job positions — make up the province’s Personalized Licence Plate committee.
“If the slogan request is offensive, suggestive, not in good taste, or does not comply with our rules, the issuer will deny the application,” he says. “The requester may appeal the decision and at that time we will send the request to the Personalized Licence Plate (PLP) committee for a vote. Alternatively, if the slogan is questionable, the request is sent to the PLP committee for a vote.”
Are we overly sensitive? Or is this just why we can’t have nice things?
Lorne Grabher is fighting to keep the personalized licence plate he’s been driving around with since 1991.