What’s wrong with this old guy, anyway? Heading back to our downtown office, the muttering driver is clearly living in the past, albeit the very recent past. Having just submitted our proposal on time (always a miracle of planning and grit), he should be enjoying the scenic (aka twisty and slow) drive along Ottawa’s justifiably famous Rideau Canal. The pressure, after all, is off. But his body chemistry has not yet caught up to this reality. Adrenaline still coursing, he is cursing the dawdler in front of us, in tone if not in terminology. I come out of my happy fog and catch sight of the vanity plate on the car impeding our progress: CRMDGN. I start to laugh, but my francophone colleague doesn’t share my amusement. Not surprising: his English repertoire—fluent though it is—doesn’t extend to ‘curmudgeon’.
Fast forward about five years. Pulling into the almost empty and completely muddy parking lot, I reflect that a chilly, early spring day is not ideal for a zoo visit. On this six-week business trip, however, I have exhausted the other tourist attractions within easy driving distance of my hotel and on my lone day off this week I will take any diversion to keep my mind off work. As I pick my way around patches of melting snow, I pass a pickup truck with a vanity plate: GNFSHN. Still smiling, I arrive at the entrance kiosk. Unaccustomed to cheery customers—or maybe just looking for her own diversion—the ticket seller asks me what’s up. Afflicted by the silly impulses that characterize a certain state of exhaustion, I ask the young woman for a pen and paper and leave this small puzzle with her. On my way out an hour later—having done what I could with what’s on offer—I stop to see how she has done with what I offered. As it turns out, not so well. I put her out of her mild dudgeon: Gone fishing, I say.
These encounters from the 1990s remind me that vanity plates have been with us for a while. Their common protocols are, therefore, well established and widely known:
We don’t need no stinkin’ vowels (or short articles, or a terminal ‘G’ on ‘ing’, for that matter).
Numerals usually stand for their sounds, not their numbers (especially 1, 2, 4, 8 and 10). But a 1 can stand in for ‘i’, for no very obvious necessity.
Letters can be a homonym of their sound (B, U, R, Y– and read nothing into that order) and others can stand for their abbreviations accepted in other usages (N for ‘and’).
Spelling bows to the length restriction of 8 alphanumeric characters.
And so on (a common writers’ protocol for ‘I can’t think of any others right now’).
With decades of practice, I have been used to reading through most of these shortcuts and substitutions with little trouble, but these days it seems there are more that I can’t decode immediately. Some, of course, are private codes not meant to be read by anyone else. Some rely on sports slang, and are meant only for true fans. Some require a level of sexual sophistication and/or crudeness (what we might call the spank and skank crowd) that pretty much rules me out. Even allowing for these categories, though, I have an uneasy feeling that I am missing ones I should be getting. Is the change in me, or the environment?
Websites devoted to vanity plates aren’t much help in answering that question. Some let readers vote on their favourite plates. WHTVR. Some offer the decoding tips I already know. THNKU. Some warn against letting preoccupation with a particularly DFCLTPL8 interfere with your driving. Good safety tip: THNKU2.
So I’ve decided to do what I usually do when I’m losing at something: redefine ‘winning’. In this case, that means changing my focus from surface to underlying meaning. A whole research field awaits—one that doesn’t depend on arcane knowledge or intuitive leaps. One that, therefore, doesn’t run the risk of leaving me feeling either ignorant or stupid.
Just last week I found my first research topic. Waiting in the left-turn lane behind a jacked-up pickup truck, I had its license plate more or less at eye level: HNTNFRK. OK, I got it, even without the gun-rack tip-off in the back window. As I completed my turn and pulled into the grocery store parking lot, I passed another pickup truck: EMNM. Too easy, even though I’m not a fan of his music. But I am resolved to no longer be distracted by these simple codes, satisfied by solving them, or frustrated by missing them. No, I am resolved to look for Something Deeper. What is it with pickup-truck drivers and VNTYPL8S? I don’t know yet, but I’m going to find out. Then we’ll see, like Ross Perot, WHSSMRT and WHSDMB.