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Published June 18, 2011, 12:10 AM

Minnesota Monitors 3-letter License Plate Combinations

With fast-changing American vocabularies, it isn't easy to weed out the license plates letters that are odd, offensive or obscene.

By: Bob Shaw, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The teasing started when Karin Anderson put the license plates on her car.

They featured the letters TEE and three numbers. Her friends thought she had paid for vanity plates related to her favorite sport, golfing.

"They began to call it the golfing car," said Anderson, who lives in Minneapolis.

It could have been worse. She could have gotten a more troublesome version of the more than 17,000 possible three-letter combinations — all monitored by the state Department of Public Safety.

With fast-changing American vocabularies, it isn't easy to weed out the license plates letters that are odd, offensive or obscene.

But that is the job of Tom Evans, Minnesota's license plate censor.

As the supervisor for the department's special plate unit, he and other employees meet informally to decide which letters are OK and which are not.

The work never stops. Year after year, they systematically go through all possible three-letter combinations.

They currently are working on those starting with the letter H, from HAA to HZZ.

Some of the rejects are easy calls. Many are words drivers might find insulting — such as BUM, GAG, GUT or APE.

Some are initials people might not like on their cars, such as KKK or LSD.

Some are obscenities. Or letters that might sound like obscenities. Or combinations that someone somewhere once thought might possibly, potentially, be considered dirty. These include BFU, WTF, FYU and TRD.

Evans has concluded that pretty much any plate including the letter F can somehow be considered obscene.

"Any time there is an 'F' in the box, we have to look really close," he said.

He recently became aware of the offensiveness of WTF.

"I would have never thought about WTF before," he said. (For others who haven't thought about it, the first two letters stand for "what" and "the.")

Other banned combinations are a mystery. No one is sure why ANS and BZD are on the censor's list, or words like HAD or RYE.

"We don't allow HTE. Why? Is that short for 'hate'?" Evans said.

The censors have to keep abreast of cultural changes.

The word TEA, for example, wasn't controversial three years ago. It hasn't yet been banned, but Evans knows it is possible that a Democrat with a TEA plate might complain about being labeled as a tea party member.

Evans must be aware of slang — the slippery words that slide in and out of fashion.

BAD has been banned, although Evans personally has no problem with it. "I thought it was kind of cool and easy to remember," he said.

Other controversial letters are name brands. Deb Lupelow of White Bear Lake noticed immediately when she got her new plates recently — with CNN, which stands for Cable News Network.

She hates CNN.

"I had to laugh. I think they are too biased, too liberal," Lupelow said.

But the censorship is rife with inconsistency.

GMC - General Motors Corp. — is forbidden, but not BMW or BUG, for a Volkswagen Beetle. It's possible to have BMW on your Jaguar and JAG on a Beemer.

A driver can have a car labeled after his favorite beer — PBR, for Pabst Blue Ribbon. But he can't drive with plates advertising his brand of underwear — BVD.

DFL is verboten, but not GOP. HHH - for Hubert H. Humphrey - has been axed, but past presidents LBJ, JFK and FDR are allowed.

Electronic communication has created a minefield of unintended three-letter combinations, and the plate police need to know about them.

For example, drivers embarrassed by their rust buckets might be bothered by LOL, which stands for "laughing out loud." So far, LOL has not been banished from Minnesota plates.

Nor have other Twitter-ish combinations: NTS (note to self), FTW ("for the win," a kind of congratulations), BRB (be right back) and GTK (good to know).

But Evans can't always predict what letters will be found offensive. The oddest complaint he ever got was from a woman who said any license plate with a J in it was the sign of a hooker.

"Is that because the J is shaped like a hook?" Evans sighed. "I have no idea."

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