It’s great to see that the AJC, my journalism alma mater for a generation until I retired, recently ran a fascinating and lengthy story about the “prestige” license tags that thousands of Georgia drivers put on their cars for only $35 to the DMV.
For the record, I wrote the same story, oh, 30 some years ago, and had a fun time doing it.
The personalized tags, sometimes called “vanity plates,” carry words, letters and sometimes numbers or a combination of the two, with special meaning to the owner. And to thousands of twisted humorists and chronic rule breakers out there, a challenge.
I never learned his name, but my favorite highway iconoclast was a Cobb County driver whose tag — an incomprehensible six letter jumble — fascinated and confused the man driving behind him, accompanied by his dyslexic 8-year-old son. The mystery was solved when the child suddenly piped up: “tikcuf!” (Note to followers of the Dew: read the quote backward, or say it aloud if you like, before you turn to something else.)
The angry father complained to the governor’s office, which passed him on to the DMV, perhaps with a rebuke about letting a dirty word go public in the name of the state of Georgia. The offender’s identity was turned over to police. I don’t remember what happened to him.
Georgia began offering personalized license tags in the 1970s, and the DMV assigned employees to screen and deny any tag requests that were deemed to be controversial or offensive. The list covered obscenities, profanities, drug terms, racial insults, and religious and sexual references. Close to 100 banned letter/number combinations included involved the letters “F” and “PH”.
Working the story, I learned that the DMV procured foreign language and medical dictionaries in order for its staff to snare incurable rule breakers who sneaked anatomical terms and foreign obscenities — virtually all of them in Spanish, French or German — onto Georgia roads and highways.
I remember personally eyeballing a handful on the streets of Atlanta that had somehow slipped past the morality dragnet, amused and delighted that the offending motorists had somehow gotten away with it. One tag carried the French obscenity “MERDE”, (roughly translated as “s–t”), another bore the rather juvenile combination “4NICK8.” You figure it out.
To be fair to the state, I know that tag requests for “IMNEKD”, “ILUST”, and “NUKEM”, an apparent endorsement of preemptive nuclear war, were refused.
That said, sometimes the rejections were just silly. A Georgia driver from Pakistan who wanted to commemorate his hometown was refused a tag with the name LAHORE, population 2 million. “You need to consider how the word appears to others,” an official told me.
The license tag policy appears to be somewhat more relaxed nowadays, at least to my impression from graphic, front-page examples in the recent AJC piece on the subject. Religious beliefs were a “No-No” for status tags — JESUS, CHRIST, and GOD were forbidden when I wrote about the topic. BIBLE still is, but DRBIBLE was approved. Probably for somebody with a degree.
My favorite though, 30 years later, remains the angry guy refused a vanity tag for what he claimed, at least, was the car that his wife drove: COCTEASR.