Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, I was sent a magnificent link today. Nominally, it’s an article about offensive terms sneaking their way onto personalized (or “vanity”) license plates. Some of them are a little humorous, but one in particular jumped out at me. From the letter (uncorrected):

“I would like to share my deepest concern about custom plates that your department issuing to the customers.”

“I would like to give you an example of such custom plate. The number is “CTO XYEB” registered in NY. In Russian it mean “one hundred penises” in a very dirty language.”

Now, having studied some Russian in the past, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing at this. Although it could easily have been an unfortunate random letter combination, the English letters “CTO XYEB” correspond to the cyrillic letters spelling a vulgar equivalent of “one hundred penises” (pronounced, “Sto huyev”) in Russian, and with amazing grammatical correctness, too.

In Russian, when counting an object, the declension of the word changes (a different ending is placed on it). So, one object is in the Nominative case singular, two is in the nominative plural, and five or more is in the Genitive Case plural, changing ‘Odin huy’ (one penis) to ‘Sto huyev’ (one hundred penises). So, in addition to be quite dirty, it’s quite grammatical.My apologies, by the way, for the transliteration. Cyrillic fonts seem to break my blogging software.Whether some enterprising young Russian speaker slipped one past the DMV, or whether a random motorist was stricken with a rather interesting random combination, this is another magnificent example of cross-linguistic translation and censorship difficulties, and a good reminder that with thousands of languages out there, it’s tough not to offend somebody sometimes.

So, if you see a brown Mercedes in Brooklyn with this magnificent license plate, you’re welcome to inform the driver of the mistake and recommend a trip to the DMV, give him or her a few choice words in Russian, or, if you’re like me, fall down laughing in the gutter. It’s all good, really.

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