Vanity plates, writing systems, and the sexualization of tofu

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Whitney Calk submitted a request to the state of Tennessee for the following license plate:

According to Nick Carbone, "Tennessee Veggie Lover's Vanity License Plate Banned for 'Vulgarity'", Time 9/16/2011:

A Tennessee woman just wanted to share her love of vegetarian eating. The state thought she was expressing her love for a more explicit activity.

It's a battle of semantics – implied spacing, really. Whitney Calk innocently (or perhaps not) requested a vanity license plate from the state of Tennessee, one that read “ILVTOFU.” But her personalized plate reflecting her fondness for bean curds was rejected on the grounds of "vulgarity.” There's nothing vulgar about tofu, right?

From a linguistic point of view, this misunderstanding points to a problem that vanity plates share with most orthographic systems. A reader must decide how to group the sequence of symbols, and how to interpret the result.

Even when a writing system clearly marks the division into words, the higher-level chunking is often ambiguous, as our growing collection of crash blossoms illustrates. Is it

Or is it

In the case of ILVTOFU, the basic division into words is ambiguous. Shall we read it "I LV TO FU" or "I LV TO F U" or, what Ms. Calk intended, "I LV TOFU"?

This type of segmentation ambiguity is rare in languages such as English whose orthography requires a space between words. In Chinese, however, where the writing system runs all of the syllables of words together, such amphibology is extremely common. Here's a tofu-flavored example: 黄豆腐烂了

could be either

Huángdòu fǔlàn le
"The soybeans are rotten"

OR

Huáng dòufu làn le
"The yellow bean curd is rotten"

N.B.: Lest someone think that such a string of five characters would never occur in real life, it is found several thousand times on the internet. Although these five characters would usually be parsed as "The soybeans are rotten," there really is something called "yellow bean curd", and in some instances of 黄豆腐烂了, the reader does have to stop and think where to break the string.

It is curious that Babel Fish ("The soybean corrupted") and Google Translate ("Soy rotten") basically parse the sentence as one would normally expect, while Baidu Fanyi yields the alternative parsing ("Yellow bean curd broken").

Whitney Calk, the Tennessee tofu-lover, is an employee of PETA, which issued a statement in support of her request. Back in April of 2009, the Colorado Department of Revenue had rejected a request for an identical vanity plate from Kelly Coffman-Lee, who had been a vegetarian for thirteen years and a vegan for the past four years. And in August of the same year, Virginia also denied a request for an ILVTOFU license plate.

Little did those who protest that their request for an ILVTOFU vanity plate has no sexual implications realize that in China, the homeland of tofu, this seemingly innocuous comestible has definite erotic connotations in certain circumstances.

Chī dòufu 吃豆腐 may mean simply "eat tofu," but it often is used to refer to a man flirting or taking liberties with a woman. Mó (mó) dòufu 摩(磨)豆腐 literally means "rub / scrape / stroke (grind) tofu," but it may also signify touching a woman's breasts or other sensitive parts, and frequently is used to signify mutual clitoral stimulation by lesbians. These connotations are salient enough to have been noted when China's president, Hu Jintao, was photographed grinding tofu in a village alleyway.

[Thanks are due to Joel Martinsen, David Moser, Jonathan Smith, Brendan O'Kane, and Zhao Lu]

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37 Comments »

  1. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 7:57 am

    In a similar vein to the rude interpretation, I've been tempted to try getting 'SWIVEPU' as a number plate (with 'P' for thorn) on the grounds that it is obscene, insulting and incomprehensible. A winning combination in my book.
    Luckily frugality has saved me up till now.

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    I note that as well as "I love to fuck" "ILVTOFU" also expands easily to "I live to fuck", which is an equally plausible sentiment for vanity plates. "LUVTOFU" forbids that expansion, but still leaves the other unacceptable connotation.

  3. dw said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    It would be interesting to see how Ms Calk pronounces her own name. If it rhymes with "walk" she might be in trouble with any cot-caught mergers, although I'm not sure how many there are in Tennessee.

  4. William Ockham said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    I initially parsed the license plate request as:

    I love to "make mistakes" (i.e. the "u" stood for "up")

    That's clearly not right, but I don't think I ever would have read TOFU as a word, unless it was a California plate. This could be solved if the states allowed a "heart" symbol. That way, staying with 7 total characters you could have I[heart][space] TOFU.

  5. Marion Crane said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 9:18 am

    Do US license plates typically not include numbers? Maybe it's because I'm used to chat abbreviations, but I had no problem reading 'tofu' instead of 'to fuck' because it wasn't written with a 2. As in, ILV2FU. Of course, then I'm reading it as 'I love to fuck you' which seems awefully specific for a license plate, so I guess there is no win/win situation here.

  6. Grep Agni said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    I thought TOFULVR (tofu lover) would work, but now that I see it it seems terrible.

  7. Janice Byer said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 10:14 am

    PETA has an entertaining history of crafting sexually-suggestive ads doomed to be rejected by the powers-that-be, after which they swiftly go viral on the net. A memorable one was a TV commercial submitted to be aired during a Superbowl game featuring clips of beautiful lingerie-clad models acting lustily toward an undressed vegetable too fresh to be the age of consent.

  8. KeithB said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    In C (and other computer languages) this kind of ambiguity is resolved by using the interpretation that uses the most symbols. It is called the "maximal munch":
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximal_munch

  9. Mark F. said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    Marion – A mix of letters and numbers is the norm, and "2" for "to" is standard on vanity plates. But "to" in its own right is also common, if only because the version with the number may have been taken.

  10. Josh said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    I remember a satirical play that one of my Chinese classes put on entitled 白腿公主 (báituǐgōngzhǔ), or "The Princess with Pale Legs." One of the funniest lines involved the princess calling her prince charming on a cell phone, while he was eating tofu off a stick:

    Princess: 你在干什么? ("What are you doing?")
    Prince: 吃豆腐. ("Eating Tofu"/"Hitting on someone")
    Princess: 在吃谁的豆腐?!?!?!?!! ("WHOSE TOFU ARE YOU EATING?"/"WHO ARE YOU FLIRTING WITH?")
    Prince: 我的豆腐. ("My tofu.")

    Best. Line. Ever.

  11. SC said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    Actually, California allows the heart symbol, as well as the hand symbol and a five-pointed star. (I'm not sure why.) A friend recently noted that it would be interesting to receive a traffic ticket with a heart license plate, obliging the police officer to draw hearts (or stars, or hands) into the little blanks.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

    I would guess that the states evaluate these based, not on owner intent, but possible interpretations by others. I suspect that in Tenn., a 'f**k you' interpretation might be as likely as 'tofu.'

  13. Andy Averill said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

    Apparently this is a story with universal appeal, including what looks like a Russian car blog: (if the Cyrillic survives intact)

    Будучи активисткой общества защиты животных и вегетарианкой, а также учитывая свободу местных законов, она решила сделать на своем регистрационном знаке надпись ILVTOFU- сокращение от I love tofu, т.е. «я люблю тофу».

  14. Andy Averill said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    Oops, forgot the link in case anybody wants to read it:

    http://www.zr.ru/a/361266/

  15. Agustin said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

    Why is it bad to have vulgar words on license plates? If a car owner wanted to be vulgar, surely he wouldn't be foiled by this.

    "Gosh darn it. I wanted to curse but the license plate people say I musn't! I suppose I'll have to change my ways."

  16. The Ridger said,

    September 23, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    @Agustin: Why? Surely you're not serious! Think of the children, man, the innocent little tots who will be exposed to these vulgarities!

  17. Terry Collmann said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    A British couple I knew took their UK-registered car to the Netherlands and couldn't understand why so many people stared at their number-plate and giggled, until someone told them what the letters on the plate – KUT – meant in Dutch. (Stick an 'n' between the 'u' and 't' for the English equivalent …)

  18. GWS said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 2:21 am

    In the 90s when living in the US, I'm from Australia, I applied for plates in New Hampshire that read U-WANK. Had I been asked what it stood for I was going to say the University of Western Australia, North Kambalda, but not being a common word in the US I had no problem.

  19. Leinad Moolb said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 3:25 am

    If she had written or asked for ILVDOFU maybe it work as tofu is just one way to spell it, i spell it as dofu…….

    so

    ILVDOFU

    is permissable?

  20. David Moser said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 6:59 am

    Given the number of menus in China with the word 干 gan1 ("dried") translated as f**k (as fourth tone gan4), probably a lot of people now have associations of tofu with sex. (See previous Language Log posts for more on this.)

  21. Anthony said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    Marion – in most of the United States, "standard" number plates have a mix of numbers and letters – for cars, usually three letters and three numbers, or the reverse. In California, we're now on NLLLNNN for standard plates, where the first N is around 8. Many states (including CA) have slightly different numbering schemes for commercial vehicles, which can include pickup trucks and SUVs, depending on state regulations. Most (all?) states allow "vanity" plates, which cost extra (usually every year), and which may take any combination of letters and numbers except those already issued, and those which make recognizable vulgarities, and occasional other words. (You can't get GOD on your plates most places, but a former Episcopal bishop in CA reportedly had IHVH.)

    Some states also limit the three-letter combinations which can appear on standard plates – a news story I read a while ago was about a commotion because PIG was not excluded, and someone receiving it was offended; the article mentioned that SEX, ASS, FUK and suchlike were proscribed, as were CAD and HAM.

    SC – officially, California's symbols are pure decoration; there is no difference between I♥TOFU and I TOFU, and if one is taken, you can't get the other.

  22. Janice Byer said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    By cracky, I remember when the alphanumerals on standard plates issued by the state of Florida, for one, weren't random but written partially in code, giving you a little something to read on the road betwixt Burma Shave signs. The first numeral(s), for example, indicated the county where the vehicle was registered, numbered according to the most recent census, highest to lowest, e.g. 1 for Dade to 67 for Liberty. In '77 the protocol was scrapped, along with jokes about how the state ranked Liberty last.

    Surprised to find a (free!) definitive list on eBay:

    http://reviews.ebay.com/FLORIDA-COUNTY-CODE-NUMBERS-AND-OTHER-INFO_W0QQugidZ10000000004071300

  23. Michael W said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    The California symbols aren't merely decoration. They're part of the special interest plates series to support programs for children. (Special interest plates allocate their fees to the indicated program). Available symbols on the kids' plates are heart, hand, star, and plus sign. See the site for kidsplates.org for more.
    The front page of that site implies they're especially suited for making suits of armor out of as well.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

    From Ted Huters:

    ========

    Someone told me a story about Beijing's brief experiment with vanity plates, which was called off after they had issued TMD 1 to 10 and only then figured out what people were trying to say–unattested, however.

    =========

    I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the TMD business was real. TMD is the pinyin (romanized) abbreviated version of tāmāde 他妈的, China's "national curse / swear word" (guómà 国骂). Literally, it means "his mother's" — a shortened version of "[fuck] his mother's [cunt]". Tāmāde 他妈的 receives an astonishing 123,000,000 ghits. I can't really judge how frequently TMD occurs in Chinese texts (a search of the Internet is complicated by the fact that it means many other things, including "Tongue Me Deeply" [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TMD]. Nonetheless, it is a fact that one often sees TMD in casual writing, on blogs, in chat rooms, and so forth.

    As for the verbalism tāmāde, one hears it everywhere. I recall years ago that, when I walked into one of the men's dorms at Donghai University in Taizhong, Taiwan, and overheard the conversations there, virtually everything was "tāmāde" — objects, individuals, events, etc. And "tāmāde" didn't really have to refer to anything in particular, just an obscenity uttered for the sheer joy of exclamation.

    Google Translate: fuck; damn it; blast it; to hell with it

    Baidu Fanyi: fuck

    Babel Fish: his mother

  25. Lugubert said,

    September 25, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    Don't forget Lu Xun's essay on tamade, e.g. at http://singaporeangle.blogspot.com/2005/07/lu-xun-on-chinese-national-swear.html.

  26. Matt McIrvin said,

    September 25, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

    @GWS: Really? I'm pretty sure "wank" was a word in common use among the Americans I knew by that time. Maybe we were unusually internationally au courant.

  27. Fred said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 1:56 am

    I grinned in Chicago when I saw LHOOQ2. Rock on Duchamp!

  28. Ken Brown said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    Maybe I need to put another coin in my irony detection meter but:

    "there really is something called 'yellow bean curd'"

    sounds as if I ought not to expect there to be such a thing as yellow bean curd. But it sounds quite normal to me. I'm think they have it in takeaways and restaurants round here. For me it would be a category that overlaps with "tofu". Maybe even another name for tofu.

  29. Ben Williams said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    You could do "LVDOUFU" if it would fit, but then it looks like "Love to do you, f– you." AIDOUFU? Maybe she could go with LVBNCRD. I guess that could look like something else. Is crud considered vulgar?

  30. Doc Rock said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

    10SCEEFU

  31. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    [...] on Twitter, and on Language Log examined the elusive triple “is.” Victor Mair considered some suggestive tofu; Mark Liberman dissected a misleading headline, what English majors know about adverbs, and eye [...]

  32. Hung Lee said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    Even one of the most important ideological bases of the Hu regime, 科学发展观, is ambiguous. It could mean either of the following:

    (a) 科学 (的) 发展 观, officially rendered in translation as "scientific outlook on development",

    or

    (b) 科学发展 观, with kexue and fazhang taken together to mean development in a scientific manner. In most contexts in which 科学发展 appears (e.g., 科学发展共建和谐), this is actually the intended meaning.

  33. APOLLO said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    Yes, the lack of word separation is the cause of ambiguity and the monkey wrench in Chinese information processing. The latest joke ‘烘手机’ showing several mainland tourists drying thei r mobile phones under a hand dryer in Taiwan. These tourists presumably take it to mean '烘 手机‘ rather than '烘 手 机’. As far as '科学发展观‘ is concern, the first choice would most likely be chosen as the second choice leaves a monosyllabic '观’ at the end of the phrase, which is usually rejected by

  34. David Moser said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 1:36 am

    I'm reminded of reading an entry in a Chinese travel brochure describing Shanghai as a guojixing dushi 国际性都市, and me thinking 国际的 ‘性’ 都市??? An international sex city? Parsing it as "guoji xingdushi".

  35. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 3:28 am

    @ Hung Lee, Apollo, and David Moser

    Astute comment from a colleague (David Branner) who is a professional computer programmer with advanced training in Chinese and computer science:

    ============

    Yes, this is one reason that Chinese computation is much less advanced than NLP for most other languages.

    ============

    By NLP he means Natural Language Processing (though that could also be Natural Language Programming). Interestingly, the first hits on Google for NLP are surprisingly all to this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuro-linguistic_programming

    And this comes from another friend, a native speaker of Chinese who is highly literate in both Chinese and English:

    ============

    My goodness, that's a tricky one—kexuefazhanguan. I just read it, and it makes me dizzy.

    ============

    To which I responded:

    ============

    If one reads Chinese texts CAREFULLY, one's head is almost constantly spinning from this kind of problem.

    It is very taxing / demanding to read Chinese seriously, but few people (native and non-native speakers) do (they just breeze through texts and say they dǒng dàgài de yìsi 懂大概的意思 ["understand the basic meaning"]); even when you do read texts seriously, you still don't really know what's going on a lot of the time. I'll soon write a simple Language Log post demonstrating that.

    =============

    Adoption of word division, both for pinyin and character texts, would go a long way toward improving the situation.

  36. Meredith said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

    Whitney is a copycat, and I feel comfortable saying that because I am too.

    In 2009, a Colorado woman was denied the ILVTOFU license plate on the grounds that it could be interpreted as an obscenity.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/08/ilvtofu-license-plate-req_n_184856.html

    Upon hearing her story, I attempted to register ILVTOFU in Virginia – as a longtime vegetarian, I liked the sentiment, but I also wanted to see if they'd allow it. They didn't, of course, but they did let me register YUMTOFU which I thought was good enough. The plates never arrived, though, and eventually I got a refund for the vanity plate fee. When I called for an explanation, they said my request had been judged "inappropriate."

    I got EU4IA instead, and people constantly assume it means "Europe for Iowa" or something similar…

  37. Mark said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    Tennesseans KNOW that the appropriate abbreviation of the word "you" is the letter "Y" .. not the letter "U". "ILVTOFU" is not the same as "ILVTOFY". This message has been brought to you by the letter "C".

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