A Whole New Realm of Bad Taste: TxtSpk and License Plates

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Step aside, "ASSMAN": The digital world has opened up a whole new way to offend and/or delight fellow drivers.

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Sorry, AKAPIMP! You can't have any of this on your vanity plate. (Government Attic and Shutterstock/schab)

Article 3.1, section 170.00 of the Vehicle Code for the State of California has some very important things to say about applications for vanity license plates. 

For example, when it comes to the requested plate: 

(A) The configuration shall comply with the specifications of Section 5105 ofthe Vehicle Code.
(B) When a desired configuration is not available, a letter shall not be substituted for a number, nor shall a number be substituted for a letter, to create another configuration of a similar appearance.
(C) The number zero shall not be used in the configuration.
(D) The department shall refuse any configuration that may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency, or which would be misleading, based on criteria which includes, but is not limited to, the following:
     1. The configuration has a sexual connotation or is a term of lust or depravity.
     2. The configuration is a vulgar term; a term of contempt, prejudice, or hostility; an insulting or degrading term; a racially degrading term; or an ethnically degrading term.
     3. The configuration is a swear word or term considered profane, obscene, or repulsive.
     4. The configuration has a negative connotation to a specific group.
     5. The configuration misrepresents a law enforcement entity.
     6. The configuration has been deleted from regular series license plates.
     7. The configuration is a foreign or slang word or term, or is a phonetic spelling or mirror image of a word or term falling into the categories described in subdivisions I. through 6. above.

The State of California, however, knows that these regulations can be confusing. The State of California would also prefer that it not waste its time processing applications for verboten license plates. So the State of California has written out -- in hilariously painstaking/painstakingly hilarious detail -- various vanity plate configurations that are, per official State edict, vulgar and/or hostile and/or lustful.  

The State of California is not alone in this. Arizona, Arkansas, the District of Columbia -- and the list goes on -- have also taken it upon themselves to preemptively ban plates like, say, "1B1GMF" and "AZZK1KR" and the classic "ASSMA"/"ASSMAN"/"ASSMANN" combo. Those states have, as a result, a series of lists of all preemptively banned plates. And the site Government Attic has taken it upon itself to file Freedom of Information Act requests for each of these lists. Yep: It totally FOIA'ed the ASSMAN.

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The results of this inquiry are striking in their volume alone: Government Attic's FOIA journey yielded page after page of tiny-fonted PDFs containing "lusty" and "profane" and "depraved" terms. "States ban words with wild abandon," Boing Boing noted, "from misspelled swear words (COKK, banned in Ark.) to French drinks (COGNAC, unacceptable in Az.) and network engineer humor (FTPLOL, no go in D.C.), including countless variations."

One reason for all this word-banning excess, presumably, is that digital communication -- texting, gchatting, emailing -- has unleashed unto the world a whole new lexicon of license-plate-brief words and expressions. "ROFLMAO" is a helpful abbreviation both for a chat window and a letter-limited license plate. As a result of which, it is now banned in Arizona. So is "LOLWTF." And D.C. has banned, more obscurely but perhaps more revealingly, "FAQH8RS." Txtspk has opened our minds, it seems, to the linguistic power of cheekily abbreviated suggestion: Because of it, we now have new portmanteaus and new acronyms and new ways, in general, to be subversive. "ASSMAN" is for amateurs. In 2013, we have "GR8D8B8." Or, we would if it the government hadn't banned it

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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