No "linguistics" on Indiana license plates

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In Indiana, a police officer successfully sued the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for the right to have a vanity license plate reading "0INK." According to the lawsuit, the message on the officer's license plate represents "an ironic statement of pride in his profession," but when he applied for a renewal his choice was rejected for impropriety. As the Indianapolis Star explains, a superior court judge has ruled that "the standards the BMV used to assess the appropriateness of personalized license plates were so vague that they violated the First Amendment." The lawsuit has also exposed the guidelines that the Indiana BMV is supposed to follow in determining if a vanity plate is objectionable. One of the big no-no's? "Linguistics"!

The Star article reproduces the nine categories of objectionable usage that the BMV is allowed to prohibit. Here is the official wording of the BMV rules on personalized license plates (PLPs):

The bureau shall deny a PLP request if an objective, reasonable person would find that the customer's proposed PLP numbers or letters, or both, combination listed on the PLP application falls into at least one (1) of the below listed categories. The bureau may also refuse a PLP request that does not fall into at least one (1) of the following categories, but is determined to carry a connotation offensive to good taste and decency, is misleading, or is otherwise prohibited:
(1) Refers to, relates to, or connotes sexual acts or eliminatory functions, including, but not limited to, breasts, genitalia, the pubic area, buttocks, etc. Additionally, references to numbers with sexual connotations are prohibited unless used to identify and in conjunction with a production year and a vehicle's make or model.
(2) Refers to or suggests the substance, paraphernalia, sale, use, purveyor of, or physiological state produced by any drug, narcotic, alcoholic beverage, or intoxicant.
(3) Refers to a race, religion, deity, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or political party or affiliation. However, generally accepted references to a race or ethnic heritage are allowable.
(4) Is defamatory, profane, obscene, vulgar, or derogatory.
(5) Expresses or suggests violence or endangerment to the public welfare.
(6) Refers to a government, a government entity, or a government official or employee.
(7) Duplicates another license plate or would substantially interfere with plate identification for law enforcement purposes.
(8) Uses linguistics, numbers, and phonetics, translations from foreign languages, or upside-down or reverse reading to reference any other prohibited numeric and letter combination.
(9) Uses or refers to a trademark, trade name, service mark, copyright, or other proprietary right in conjunction with language that promotes, advertises, or endorses a product, brand, or service provided for a commercial purpose unless the registrant is the verified owner of the protected mark or is authorized to use such mark.

Now, the reference to "phonetics" in Rule #8 makes some sense — it's surely supposed to cover playful phonetic respellings of taboo vocabulary, like, say, FUH-Q. But what do you suppose they think "linguistics" means, and how would a vanity plate use it? Herb Stahlke brought this to the attention of the American Dialect Society mailing list, where Galen Buttitta suggests it simply means "Don't try to be clever and sneak obscenity past the radar." Anyone familiar with other cases where "linguistics" is taken to mean something like "clever deception in concealing a forbidden message"? (No jokes about cunning linguists, please.)


  1. Karen Conlin said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    I don't think they're using "linguistics" to mean "clever deception blah blah blah."

    I think, on reading the entry several times, they mean "language " (which of course is still the wrong definition, but anyway) in conjunction with numbers, phonetics, foreign language translation, etc. to achieve that clever deception. Their point, as Galen Butitta opines and with which I agree, is that one should not attempt to be obscene by tricking the authorities. I suspect they think "linguistics" simply means "language." (But of course it sounds more eruditer. Or something.)

    Not right, but not "deception" either.

  2. Daniel said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

    The best use of "linguistics" I saw on a license plate was APETH.

    Also I wonder if they would reject an application for MAZDA.

  3. A Reader said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

    If I drove a Mazda, I'd be tempted to get vanity plates with 'AHURA'.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    Larry Horn comments on ADS-L:

    Perhaps partly a question of scope. The key condition is

    (8) Uses linguistics, numbers, and phonetics, translations from foreign languages, or upside-down or reverse reading to reference any other prohibited numeric and letter combination.

    If we interpret it as

    (8) Uses linguistics, numbers, and phonetics, translations from foreign languages, or [upside-down or reverse reading to reference any other prohibited numeric and letter combination].

    then the use of linguistics is ruled out (as, however, is the use of numbers, which seems somewhat implausible as a banned category). If we read it as

    (8) Uses [linguistics, numbers, and phonetics, translations from foreign languages, or upside-down or reverse reading to reference any other prohibited numeric and letter combination].

    then linguistics (etc.) is banned only as a way to reference "prohibited numeric and letter combination", which sounds more reasonable, although I'm still not sure exactly what counts. Of course this is Indiana, land of


    so all bets are off.

  5. KeithB said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    Maybe to eliminate things like VERB YOU.

  6. Joel said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

    Similarly (or is it mutatis mutandis?), the New Hampshire Supreme Court has recently ruled that its DMV improperly denied someone a license plate reading COPSLIE. The court decision states that because of its vagueness the DMV regulation violates the free speech right guaranteed by the New Hampshire Constitution.

  7. Bill W said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

    Maybe "linguistics" would include a license plate with this:

    * h3yebh

  8. GeorgeW said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

    ". . . references to numbers with sexual connotations are prohibited."

    Huh? I can think of only one (69). Is that still in circulation? What others?

    I checked "Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing" and could find no reference to taboo numbers.

  9. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    No doubt "69" is the only taboo number alluded to here. The similar guidelines for California are more explicit:

    If the number "69" is used, the make and current plate number or VIN for a 1969 year model vehicle to which the plates will be assigned must be part of the application (for verification purposes).

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

    I've been told by people who've spent time driving around California that the California DMV lacks sufficient expertise in the "naughty words" of certain of the various L1's with significant immigrant presence in the state to screen out all of the vanity plates they probably would screen out if they had more polyglot bureaucrats.

  11. John Swindle said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

    They meant to prohibit the use of psychology, but there was already a law forbidding the practice of psychology without a license.

  12. Scott Schulz said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    I'm not sure the California DMV does so well as monoglot breaucrats. I have definitely seen PRIAPIC on the freeway.

  13. Alyssa said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    I would interpret "linguistics" here to mean something like "wordplay". And I can sort of see how you'd get to that usage.

    You start with the common notion of linguistics being "anything dealing with language on a meta-level" (which is why professional translators often get called "linguists"). Combine that with a need for a catchall term that covers "people using words to imply other words" and there you are.

  14. Rubrick said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:23 pm

    An acquaintance of mine had TIHZWA. A clever use of optics, if not linguistics.

  15. Nathan said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    @GeorgeW: Maybe 105? No, too much of a stretch. Banning "linguistics" is one thing, but I don't think they'd ban mathematics.

  16. Chris C. said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

    (No jokes about cunning linguists, please.)

    Ah, I see you've dealt with the Internet before.

  17. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 7:29 pm

    420 would probably be taboo under (2).

  18. GeorgeW said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 8:08 pm


  19. Chris C. said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

    Yes, 420.

  20. maidhc said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

    My grandfather had the number plate 69 in the ACT for many years.

  21. Roger Lustig said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

    @Ben Zimmer: We haven't had that spirit since…

  22. GWS said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 12:05 am

    Back in the 90s when I was living in NH, I applied for and received a plate that read U-WANK. If asked I was going to say it stood for the University of Western Australia, North Kambalda. I am still angry with myself for losing the plates when I moved house a couple of years ago.

  23. David Morris said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 2:52 am

    New South Wales' rules read:
    'What is deemed inappropriate or offensive content?
    Plate content may be considered unsuitable if it contains inflammatory or defamatory references in any language which could be considered by a reasonable person to be inappropriate for public display. Examples would be drug or alcohol, sexual, racial or discriminatory references.'

  24. Jespersen said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 3:18 am

    > in any language which could be considered by a reasonable person to be inappropriate for public display.


  25. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 6:43 am

    Taboo numbers: Recent news here said a product in Germany (I think) got some censorious attention for displaying the number 88 in its packaging. That number is used as code for HH, since H is the eighth letter, and HH is short for a taboo expression associated with Nazis. Similarly, I learnt that 18 is code for the initials of you-know-whom.

    Months ago, some chain or other (Burger King) played with the number 1312 in their opening campaign (date and time of day, prominent ads). That was read by some as code for All Cats Are Beautiful, which in turn is offensive because ACAB really stands for a different statement (about All Cops) that is really considered offensive. (Taboo avoidance is fun but much complicated.)

  26. GeorgeW said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 6:50 am

    Chris C.: Okay, I give up. What does 420 mean?

  27. Martin J Ball said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    @GeorgeW Read the Wikipedia piece linked above!

  28. M. Apodaca said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    Could linguistics mean "foreign language words/puns we don't get?"

  29. V said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    "An acquaintance of mine had TIHZWA. A clever use of optics, if not linguistics."

    Could you explain, for those of use whose native writing system is not Latin, what that is supposed to look like?

  30. Rodger C said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 11:24 am

    V: Look at it in a mirror.

  31. Rodger C said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    I read once that the California DMV once banned ZERSHK because someone recognized it as Armenian for "jackass."

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    The problem with taboo numbers is that, especially as they are used to refer to calendar years, the legitimate uses cannot easily be completely driven out of discourse by the taboo. A hotel can label its floors to go directly from 12 to 14 to sidestep a taboo/superstition, but those who graduated from high school or college last year are the Class of '13 and presumably in many cases proud of it. And likewise 1969 (or 1988, or whatever) will have personal significance for many people as a year of birth, year of graduation, year of marriage, or some other event of personal significance, and you can't expect in all contexts that the 19- prefix will be added.

    FWIW, the wikipedia article on the 1985 hit "Summer of '69" says that one of the song's co-writers has subsequently claimed he intended a sexual double entendre in the lyrics while the other has stuck with the strictly chronological interpretation. It may be significant that the one who makes the latter claim is the one who was himself 17 in the summer of 1969 (and the narrator's POV seems to be that of someone who was about that age looking back from the perspective of the '80's to his teenage years) whereas the one who claims the double-entendre was only nine years old that summer.

  33. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

    I know someone who got a vanity plate that said '88' because he considers it to be a number that connotes good luck. He's not Europe-descended; I don't know how familiar he is with the history of WWII or its current ramifications in Germany. I'm pretty sure he'd be gobsmacked to learn that it were banned somewhere.

  34. AntC said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 5:44 am

    @Daniel B, Chris C 420 taboo:so I can't name my car after my boat?

    Am I allowed its Olympic class big brother


    (I believe that 420 is also a make of inflatable powerboat.)

  35. firefly said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 6:53 am

    They should sue themselves, I know somebody who used to have the randomly assigned Indiana plate 420 THC.

  36. John said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    Presumably "0INK" was banned based on "(6) Refers to a government, a government entity, or a government official or employee"?


  37. John Swindle said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    Ray Dillinger: "88" or any number of concatenated 8's is lucky in Chinese because in Cantonese "eight" is pronounced "bat", which sounds like "fat," which means something like "to progress". The respective sounds in Mandarin are "bā" and "fā". I don't know why "bat" would sound like "fat" or "bā" would sound like "fā", but supposedly that's the case.

    There are other nice combinations like "168," homophonous with "all the way eight," which according to the bat/fat rule sounds like "all the way progress."

  38. Mr Punch said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    Since one TV show after another is featuring 3-ways this season, I'm afraid the number of allowable license numbers in Indiana ia about to drop by ten percent.

  39. Fun said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 11:55 am

    Now that The Linguist List – – is moving to the University of Indiana at Bloomington, let's hope folks in IN will be better informed and enlightened about the proper and improper meaning and use of language.

  40. tk said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 1:51 am

    re: the discussion on '420', to quote Stan Freberg:

    St George: "We also got you on a 412."
    Dragon: "412? WHATS A 412?"
    St George: "Overacting. Let's go."

  41. tk said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 1:53 am

    Oh, yes:
    Fun, there is no University of Indiana at Bloomington, it's Indiana University.

  42. Josh said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:59 pm

    88 is bye-bye (ba-ba) in chinese texting and chatting shorthand…

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