by Eszter Hargittai on August 27, 2006

In addition to taking pictures of restroom signs, I also enjoy looking around for interesting license plates. There are plenty of these in Illinois, apparently one in five drivers has one. I find this somewhat surprising given their cost: $76 extra for personalized plates and $123 for vanity plates (and who knew there was a difference between those two categories?).

I used to take a lot of pictures of them, but given the volume I have decided to focus mostly on ones that I can decipher and find at least somewhat interesting. Some of my favorites: EUROPA, KODALY, MAKE ART, GENEVE 4 (although that would be cleaner without the number), GOOGLE and MR PHOTO. For that last one I reversed course and went back to park on the street and capture it. I am serious about my collection.:) Among others’ photos, I’ve especially appreciated finds that have some Internet-related meaning (FLICKR‘s the best), but some others are fun as well (e.g. GRUETZI) plus the ones that are not obvious to decipher (although if they are too cryptic I’m likely to miss the meaning). Others are just outright curious, for example, who knew emotional expressions about one’s Mom is a popular theme (I LOV MUM, ILUVMA).

The issue of vanity plates can get tricky quickly as certain expressions are not always allowed. One has to wonder how closely suggested plates get scrutinized. Or would the reverse of a plate be checked (say, you want to send a message to those viewing your plate in their rear-view mirror, do state official consider the reverse reading of submitted requests)? Then there is the issue of specialty plates that support certain causes. The environmental ones don’t cause much contraversy, but the pro-life ones do.

Illinois has a search program available so you can check whether your preference is available. It turns out that mine is, but I’m not ready to spend the $123. I guess I could always just get a bumper sticker.

I see that there are plenty of vanity plates in Calfornia so I look forward to capturing those when I move there in a couple of weeks.



jdkbrown 08.27.06 at 11:18 am

Best one I’ve ever seen: UCME2P.

I figure the driver was a urologist.


Matt 08.27.06 at 11:23 am

My grandfather had a plate for some time that said “OPM2”. It meant “Other People’s Money Too”. I’m not sure why he liked that. But, he was eventually required by California to get rid of it on the theory that it was supporting narcotics.


kid bitzer 08.27.06 at 12:22 pm

okay, I’ll bite:

what is *unclean* about GENEVE 4, with the number?

(I feel like such a square–“is this some sort of new slang or something? For making out? Or worse?”)


Eszter 08.27.06 at 12:40 pm

Kid B – You’re reading way too much into it. All I meant was that it would be nicer (re my personal preferences) if it just said Geneve without a number. According to the IL license plate search form to which I link above, Geneve 9 is the next available one. So Geneve is taken as is Geneve 1, Geneve 2, etc. Unless the number has a meaning (which it might to this person, and the #2 often does) I prefer vanity plates without a numeric addition at the end.

PS. I tried sending you an email in response to another comment you made recently, but I keep getting messages about how it hasn’t gone through yet.


Hank Roberts 08.27.06 at 12:41 pm

California also has a way of inquiring about possible plates. They refused my ham call sign because it would be ‘too easily confused’ with some already issued license plate. But Ca. DMV don’t tell you what the problem is beyond that vague assertion. So, have fun when you move out here.


Henry (not the famous one) 08.27.06 at 1:18 pm

Some years ago, while ferrying my son and some of his friends around Los Angeles, I drove up next to a guy in a convertible with the plates “HTNSKNS.” I think I thought it had something to do with drumming, so I asked him. He begged off, saying, “You know, hitting skins.” When I pressed him further, he said, “You know, sex.” Rather than being embarrassed by my antics (the instinctual response), my son took great pleasure that time in my greater discomfort.

Somebody once got the plates “SM Queen” issued by the DMV. We don’t know if she was from Santa Monica or San Marino–it makes a difference.

Someone published a book about twenty years ago drawn solely from license plate constructions of this sort. My father (who collected plates fifty years ago, before vanity plates were available to the masses) wanted to read it, but never found it.


Chris Winter 08.27.06 at 1:19 pm

Speaking of cryptic vanity plates, here’s one I’ve annoyed people with a time or two: YY2BY4N. A co-worker some years ago had it on his Japanese import, and the import of the plate was that it’s “Wise to buy foreign”.


Cranky Observer 08.27.06 at 1:45 pm

> I find this somewhat surprising given
> their cost: $76 extra for personalized
> plates and $123 for vanity plates

My European coworkers were always bemused in a puzzled and dismissive way by US vanity plates. My response was: name me another tax where the taxpayers _beg_ the goverment to let them voluntarily double it! {I gave up my vanity plates when the fee in my state went to triple; THAT was over the line ;-)}



Delicious Pundit 08.27.06 at 2:26 pm



Cranky Observer 08.27.06 at 2:29 pm


Close. Very close.



theophylact 08.27.06 at 2:41 pm

My favorite ones that I’ve personally seen include 6UL DV8 (don’t know how that one slipped by the censors), YKPAIHA (since Cyrillic wasn’t available), IIOFTX (I assume “The Eyes of Texas”) and, most recently, BYHOMER (on a Honda Odyssey).


Tom T. 08.27.06 at 2:54 pm

Oedipus Rex retold through vanity plates.


Matt 08.27.06 at 3:21 pm

Quine reported that Hubert Dryfus had “Gavagi” on his VW Rabbit.


Richard Zach 08.27.06 at 4:07 pm

> Quine reported that Hubert Dryfus had “Gavagi” on his VW Rabbit.

He still does on his Ghia.


Ben Alpers 08.27.06 at 4:14 pm

Quine reported that Hubert Dryfus had “Gavagi” on his VW Rabbit.

Or would those be undetached Rabbit parts?


Eszter 08.27.06 at 4:42 pm

I like the idea of telling stories in license plates.:)

I just searched for “Eszter” and it’s not available, wow. I’d have to get Eszter 1. Not that I’d want that as my license plate, but still, interesting.


Jess 08.27.06 at 5:27 pm

Perhaps it’s because I’m beginning to feel the financial squeeze of parenthood, but I really enjoyed a plate I saw recently – IOUDAD.

I’m sure “Dad” doesn’t mind the extra money he paid for that gentle reminder.


Scott Lemieux 08.27.06 at 6:17 pm

Have you seen any of those pro-life license plates yet?


Scott Lemieux 08.27.06 at 6:20 pm

P.S. In Canada we actually had a low-budget game show that required contestants to figure out the meanining of hypothetical vanity plates…


Eszter 08.27.06 at 7:18 pm

The Bumpter Stumpers game sounds fun.:)

Scott, no, I haven’t seen such plates. But it’s worth noting that the states I’ve lived in recently (the last ten years) haven’t had the option of such pro-life license plates so I haven’t had much opportunity for exposure to them.


Gene O'Grady 08.27.06 at 7:34 pm

Last month I actually saw an Oregon license plate reading “I HATE W”


Gene O'Grady 08.27.06 at 7:36 pm

Oops. As I was saying, last month I actually saw an Oregon license plate reading “I HATE W” in Portland.

My all time favorite, however, was a California license plate IEPEYC, with a Greek Orthodox priest in full regalia pumping gas. Obviously that wasn’t in Portland.

My own reads OYTIC, good for a few funny stories.


Malcolm 08.27.06 at 7:56 pm

Does anyone have any idea why, besides “obscene or offensive combinations”, Illinois also apparently forbids “foreign words” on specialized plates? And what does “foreign” mean, in the context of a language? Anything other than english? What about spanish? Or native american languages? Am I the only one who finds this at all odd or disturbing? Or am I missing something obvious?


maidhc 08.27.06 at 8:10 pm

Some years ago now I saw a (white, naturally) VW Rabbit with the plate ML8ML8.


up too late 08.27.06 at 11:35 pm

#6: The book to which you refer is called PL8SPK: California Vanity Plates Retell the Classics, written by Daniel Nussbaum, copyright 1994, published by HarperCollinsWest. It contains 24 stories retold using only vanity plates then in use in California. (“Stories” is occasionally a misnomer: it includes a list of the Beatles’ greatest hits, a choice bit of dialogue from GoodFellas, and a rehash of “Dress for Success,” among others.)

No story uses any plate more than once.

Some stories are only a few words long. Here, in its entirety, is “LOLITA”:
Others are longer: “ANDY WARHOLS DIARIES (HILITES)” is probably the longest, with an estimated 350 plates telling the tale. Probably my favorite in the book is “BUGDUDE BYYYY KAFKA.” (“GREGRRR DOSS NOT YET SEETHAT AAAA 5FT10 COKROCH IZZZ UNWANTD 2DXTRME.”)

A fun achievement, well-designed, and best taken in small doses. (Its classification as a “paperback” is rather amusing, as the front and back covers of this spiralbound book are made of metal.) Sorry I haven’t figured out how to post a link; it’s pretty easy to figure out how to look it up, though.

I think it’s OSI, but used copies are available.


bad Jim 08.28.06 at 3:19 am

You can check out your own personalized California license plate here. They’re tax-deductible if you itemize, by the way.

An early favorite was CD4528, instantly recognizable to any number of engineers as a “one-shot” (or, if you prefer, a dual monostable multivibrator).

A co-worker claimed she’d seen the state-issued plate 3HOL469. Since I once saw a 2HOT###, I was disinclined to doubt her.

My own vanity plate is the coastal protection model, with a bluish whale’s tail. I don’t mind my modest annual charitable contribution. The text I chose is so obscure that most people can’t even recall the letters correctly, which may come in handy if I ever use the car in a crime: 2SEELEN.


hilzoy 08.28.06 at 3:56 am

California is the home of a classicist whose plate reads:



plover 08.28.06 at 5:55 am

One I always remember is: OHIT7LY


baslow 08.28.06 at 6:07 am


kid bitzer 08.28.06 at 7:13 am


I don’t get APNTN. Any chance it was APHTH? That would look a bit more like the greek word for virtue.


SamChevre 08.28.06 at 9:25 am


You should come visit Virginia; vanity and personalized plates are cheap here ($10 for personalization, and as little as $10 for the plate) and so are very common.


Tim McG 08.28.06 at 9:41 am

A friend of mine had a (Tennessee, IIRC) plate that read: IMGONUP, intended, of course, as “I’m goin’ up.”

When another friend of mine saw it, she wondered, “Why does your license plate say ‘I’m go’n’o pee’?”


Henry (not the famous one) 08.28.06 at 5:23 pm

#12 and #25–That sounds like it, but the publication date throws me off, since my father (who died in 1993) had mentioned it several years earlier. Perhaps, like other great authors, he released his masterpiece in stages.

The retelling of Oedipus is particularly stirring. As for Lolita, how did the first plate make it past the bureaucrats at the DMV?


Michael Rebain 08.29.06 at 8:11 am

For those of us interested in the design of license plates, and not just vanity plates, here is a comprehensive website:


cw 08.29.06 at 10:18 pm

Eszter, I used to live in Illinois and I believe they require a number in every plate. So Eszter1 does not mean there is someone driving around with the plate Eszter.


hilzoy 08.30.06 at 12:44 pm

kid b: oops. He got it right; I screwed up.


Ali Soleimani 08.30.06 at 2:30 pm

True anecdote: when I worked in San Diego several years ago, I used to pick up a friend who worked at the Salk Institute. Francis Crick worked there before he passed away recently, and my friend reported that you could immediately recognize his car in the lot from its vanity plate:




Mark 08.30.06 at 4:01 pm

My favorites are the ones where there has been some shift in the owner’s vehicle since the plate was issued. I especially enjoy the ones which indicated the ownership of an expensive car (HOTBENZ) that were now on something less exalted.

Illinois doesn’t require numbers.

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