Political blowjobs, or The power of expletive-filled number plates

This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on linguistics in social media and politics, and helped create the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He was last seen on Strong Language with an article on emoji swearing. He tweets at @philipseargeant.

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Blowjobs have played an occasional but important part in political history. The most notable recent example, of course, involved Bill Clinton. It was his equivocation over the nature of his relations with Monica Lewinsky that led to him being impeached on perjury charges. A century before Clinton, another president had an even more decisive oral-sex-related experience. Félix Faure, President of the French Republic between 1895 and 1899, was unlucky enough to die in office from a cerebral haemorrhage which he supposedly suffered while being fellated by his mistress.

The latest entry in the annals of political crises involving blowjobs doesn’t concern the act itself, however, but rather the word. Specifically, it concerns the use of the word as a political insult. And even more specifically, an insult expressed by means of car vanity plates.

On 10 August 2018, a huge demonstration took place in Romania calling on the highly unpopular government to resign. The protest was motivated by a number of different factors, but one of the most prominent was a controversy over an obscene number plate.

In the UK, the DVLA produces a list twice a year of banned registration numbers – mostly combinations which approximate swearwords, racist epithets or sexist remarks. This year, for instance, the combinations VA18 NAS, BU18 SHT, and TA18 BAN were all on the list. As was BL18 JOB. Every now and again, of course, something slips through the net. Last year, for example, someone put the number plate CU11 NNT up for sale (for a competitive £6,000) after it had somehow eluded the censors.

The incident in question, however, involves a number plate registered in one country but deemed to be offensive in another. In other words, it’s a case of cross-cultural number plate communication.

The story goes as follows. Razvan Stefanescu, a Romanian living in Sweden, returned to his native country for a holiday recently, driving his car which sported personalised licence plates. The plates read ‘MUIE PSD’. In Swedish, this combination of letters is of no particular note. There’s no hidden meaning to them. In Romanian, however, they’re a bit more inflammatory. ‘Muie’ is a loanword from Romani mui (‘face’), and is used as a slang term for ‘blowjob’. Its pragmatic use in Romanian is far stronger than ‘blowjob’ in English, however. ‘PSD’, meanwhile, is the ruling Social Democratic Party. So taken together, a comparable English translation would be ‘Fuck the PSD!’.

Once Stefanescu was back in Romania, the police confiscated the licence plates and suspended his driving licence. They claimed that the plates weren’t valid in Romania, opened up a criminal file under his name, and put out a statement saying they’d consulted with the Stockholm Interpol Office who’d confirmed that personalized plates were only valid in Sweden. But this justification was almost immediately contradicted by the Swedish Embassy, who said the plates should be valid across the EU.

The whole affair then degenerated into a specious technical argument about number plate regulation, with some people citing the 1968 Vienna Convention while others cited a 2015 Belgian amendment to the Convention. By this time, though, the whole incident had become a symbol of state disinformation and authoritarianism.

It had also begun to spread. Video of the police removing the number plates was shared widely across social media. Farmers marked out the slogan in their fields. And during the local derby between Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest, the supporters of both teams forwent the usual chanting at each other, and instead started singing ‘Muie PSD’. As Andrei Chirileasa, editor-in-chief of Romania-Insider wrote, the reaction by those in power ended up boosting the message rather than suppressing it. In other words it created the swearing equivalent of the Streisand effect.

And all this fed into the plans for the 10 August demonstration. What had originally started as a call on Facebook from a small local organization mushroomed into a major event, with ‘Muie PSD’ as its rallying call.

One of the issues raised by this concerns the rights of citizens to use strong language as part of the political process. In certain countries this is enshrined in freedom of expression laws. For example, in the US a Supreme Court decision from back in 1968 preserves the right of people to swear for political purposes, following a ruling over a protester who wore a jacket with the phrase ‘Fuck the Draft’ to a hearing at a Los Angeles courthouse.

In other places legal rulings on the issue are far more recent. Earlier this year, for instance, a court ruled that citizens in Austria have the legal right to swear at their politicians, following a case where the far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache attempted to sue a group of activists who’d made a video of themselves saying ‘Fuck Strache’.

The issues playing out in Romanian politics at the moment are far more complex and serious than the slightly absurdist drama of Mr Stefanescu’s car, of course. But the moral of the story seems to be that if you’re trying to contain anti-government demonstrations, don’t accidentally exacerbate things by clamping down on obscenities that are spelt out on car licence plates.

6 thoughts on “Political blowjobs, or The power of expletive-filled number plates

  1. Steve Bacher August 11, 2018 / 11:41 pm

    Did you specifically use the number “18” in your examples for a reason? See this Language Log post (since we’ve been talking about Korean language stuff lately):

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=39433

    – seb

    Like

  2. Bruce August 19, 2018 / 10:00 pm

    Herb Caen, long-time columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle, reported during the Watergate years that someone managed to get the personalized California license plate “FK NXN”

    Like

  3. Theophylact September 19, 2018 / 8:57 pm

    Not political, but I recall seeing “6UL DV8” DC plates a number of years ago, and wondered how that got by the scrutineers.

    Like

  4. rsteinmetz70112 October 6, 2018 / 4:03 pm

    Some contributor might wish to do an article on the strong language mentioned in the recent Senate hearings.

    Just a thought.

    Like

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