A mystery on the motorway
Although most Kiwis shun the charms of poetry, they nevertheless find ways to delight in the ambiguity and complexity of language. Baby naming, for instance, has become an unofficial literary genre in this country, with couples consulting historical dictionaries of names, arguing about the aesthetics of one name versus another, and nervously checking their choices against those of other members of their postnatal coffee groups.
Personalised number plates also offer Kiwis who might never buy a book of poetry an opportunity to play with language. Like the haiku, the personalised plate is a form which imposes severe constraints on a poet. With only a few characters to play with, the poet must cram as much meaning as possible into his or her plate, without sacrificing precision and wit. Sadly, bad, boring plates are as common as bad, boring haiku. Do the owners of ITHELP or EZMONEY or IM BILL really expect us to impressed with their work?
Sometimes a number plate gains its effect from the vehicle it adorns. I remember seeing, a few years ago, a Ford Escort, or some similar mode of car, with a souped up engine and, I think, purple lights, decorated by a plate that said UTERUS. I thought that the owner of the car must have been striving for a poetic juxtaposition of feminine language and masculine imagery. Perhaps, though, he was just a seventeen year old boy racer sharing a car with his gynaecologist Mum.
A reader of this blog sent me this account of her sighting of a mysterious personalised number plate on one of Auckland's motorways:
The other day B spotted this car on the motorway ahead of us...B is normally a sedate driver (one of my friends lovingly calls him 'Grandma driver') but once he spotted this car he was like a bull to a red rag. Suddenly he sped up and started to drive our ancient ford laser like it was a rally car. The poor old ford was darting in and out of traffic as B was trying to catch up to the red car, I've never seen him drive like that before!
I wondered what an earth was going on as B was saying "noooooo.....must be a terrible mistake!.....who would.....what the F#*%!" Then I spotted what he was looking at, the registration plate of the car read 'JEWE DI'. Of course for B this was personal after all he is descended from a long line of Rabbis. Finally we reached the harbour bridge and B swung a poor straining ford around a bus and pulled along side the 'red rag' car. "I just have to see who is driving that car" he said.
The driver was a middle aged woman but we didn't get a good look at her as she changed lanes and out of clear sight. We carried on driving to our destination, Brett shaking his head and muttering under his breath "must have been a typo...surely?!" I pointed out to him that perhaps it was and that the middle aged woman wasn't against Jews but in fact had something against Hamish Dewe and that the plate read: DEWE DI. We would love to know what was behind the choice of plate number...was it a brash anti-semite statement? a anti-Hamish statement?...what do you think?
Personalised plates are vetted by the Ministry of Transport, and I think it's safe to say that a phrase as offensive as JEW DI wouldn't be allowed onto the roads. DEWE DI may not be obviously offensive, but it is certainly obscure, to me as well as to my correspondent. A quick search of translation sites doesn't turn up a match for the phrase in any of the word's hundred or so largest languages, though 'di' is apparently a preposition in Italian and several other tongues.
Here's a desperate and rather silly suggestion: given that 'di' can mean 'of' in Italian, and given the fact that Italy colonised Somalia and, for a few years, Ethiopia, and perhaps left some of its language behind in those places, is it possible that the plate belongs to an Afar person who wants us to know that he or she comes, originally, from the Dewe district of Ethiopia?
The alternative, of course, is that someone is thinking evilly about my old mate Hamish Dewe. I know Hamish can be a very tough book reviewer, but wishing him dead seems a little over the top.
Footnote: Skyler comments "Trust you to arrive at such a convoluted explanation. My bet is that there's someone out there named Diana Dewe." Why didn't I think of that?
Footnote (2): if the plate is really supposed to say JEWE DI, could it be quoting this Yoruba-language song?
[Posted by Maps/Scott]