It's a Dirty Job, but California's Special Dmv Unit Has to Make Sure That Motorists Clean Their Plates

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A few months ago a letter was sent to a California motorist. "The records of the Department of Motor Vehicles," it said, "show that the plates IVNIK8 were issued to you. The Department has determined that said plates carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency in that IVNIK8 phonetically states 'fornicate.' " Therefore, the letter concluded, the plates were being canceled.

The Special Plate Unit strikes again. In California, probably the state with the most (1.6 million)vanity plates in the nation, keeping track of licentious licenses can be a real pain in the trunk. For that reason the Special Plate Unit, a select group of scrutinizers based in the DMV's Sacramento headquarters, is charged with the task of screening the 500 or so daily requests for personalized plates—and pulling out the average of nine suggestive orders before they're manufactured at Folsom prison. "We screen for such things as sexual connotations," says Marlys Whiteside, a registration program manager, "vulgarity, terms of prejudice or hostility or a racially or ethnically degrading term—as well as foreign words that may fall into those categories."

"We use a number of dictionaries," says the unit's manager, Kim Langley. "Foreign language dictionaries, slang dictionaries, a medical dictionary, the state penal code and a mirror." A mirror? Explains Whiteside: "I just had one that says something backwards: 33M TAE."

Deciphering is no easy task. Sure, anyone can spot DEBITCH or NICBUNZ. But it gets hard weeding out raunchy efforts like DUIT2ME and UPURZ2 from such innocent plates as those of a soda dealer (CME47UP) or a nursery school teacher (EIEIO). "I wasn't even aware of a lot of the slang until I started working here," says Linnea Davis, a program technician. "That slang dictionary has expanded my vocabulary. It hasn't improved it, but it's certainly expanded it."

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