Personalized License Plates

Two things are well known about U.S. culture: 1) Americans are very individualistic, and 2) their love of freedom is expressed in their ownership of automobiles.  The United States has roughly 800 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants, more than any major country in the world.*

One way that American motorists express their self-identities is by personalizing their license plates.  Nearly 10 million U.S. vehicles have plates with unique messages (roughly 4% of registered cars, trucks, and vans).

Because of its large population, California uses 8 characters (letters or numbers) on license plates to identify all its vehicles.  My state of Michigan uses 7 characters.

Because of limited space, drivers must be clever to fit their message onto their plates.  In English, the following abbreviations are sometimes used:

0 – oh, zero; can also look like letter “O”                 

1 – won; can also look like lower case “L”                 

2 – to

4 – for                                   

5 – can look like letter “S”                                   

8 – ate; can also look like letter “B”

B – be                                   

C – see                                                     

R – are                                                     

U – you                                                     

Y - why

My own personalized plate says UBELONG.  This is related to our TV show, Feel Like You Belong, which tells immigrant stories of struggle and belonging.  One nonconformist friend of mine has YBNRML (Why be normal?).  My artist wife’s license plate has this encouraging message: ARTS4U (Art is for you.).

Below you can see one California driver who loves listening to jazz music.

This next plate reminds us that personalized licenses are sometimes called “vanity” plates.  (The adjective “vain” refers to people who like to look good and have others pay attention to them.)

If you want to know whether your personal message has already been taken, you can check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.  All 50 U.S. states allow vanity plates.  In Michigan, the Secretary of State’s website has this tool to check if your desired message is available.  (Note: you will have to pay an additional fee for this privilege.)

Can you guess the meaning of the following vanity plates?  (Some of them are connected to the kind of car that the driver owns.)

For a list of many clever vanity plates, visit this website.

Does your car have a personalized plate?  Send us a picture!  If you see a clever plate on the street, send us a photo or text us with the plate’s message (maybe noting the type of car and driver).

In the meantime, drive safely, everyone!

* The tiny nations of San Marino and Monaco have higher per-capita rates than the U.S.

Explanations to the five plates above:

A. This BMW driver owes a lot of money (due to expensive car payments).

B. This Californian hates to eat peas.

C. This Corvette driver loves (Cor)vettes.

D. This California driver only lives to go bowling.  (Note that the frame says that the bowler likes to finish a game with three final strikes.)

E. This grateful Virginian feels so fortunate.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.