Politics & Other Mistakes: Punctuating the profane

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Don’t read this column if you’re easily offended. It contains suggestions of rude words and phrases.

Also, don’t read it if you’re almost never offended. Those rude words are only hinted at. You’re gonna be disappointed.

If there’s anybody left, let’s proceed.

Of late, Maine has experienced an outbreak of naughty words being used in public. Signs have appeared on the lawns of disgruntled citizens that appear to suggest they wish to have sex with the president or the governor. Neighbors have complained, pointing out that Joe Biden and Janet Mills have never expressed any interest in hopping into bed with creepy right-wingers and are unlikely to be persuaded by a crudely painted – and worded – sign.

Nevertheless, this form of protest is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. There’s no law against upsetting the sensibilities of the fastidious, prissy, or censorious. In fact, there’s something to be said for doing so.

Perhaps as an overreaction to this recent trend of blatancy in lawn decorations, several bills have been introduced in the Legislature to restrict what sorts of words can be used on vehicle license plates.

In 2015, Maine, which had previously severely restricted what was considered an appropriate license-plate message, began allowing almost anything on its plates, vulgarity be damned. The secretary of state made that change after reviewing court cases in other jurisdictions that overturned laws limiting expressions that employed references to sex, bodily functions, and impolite behavior.

Since then, license plates with four-letter words on them have proliferated. Well, maybe proliferated isn’t the precise word. Plates featuring good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon terms currently constitute .0003 percent of all those issued by the state. That’s 421 out of 1.4 million.

There’s probably a higher percentage of swear words in an average evening of Netflix.

Nevertheless, state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, told a legislative committee earlier this month that immediate action is needed.

“The degree of obscenity and also insults that are allowed have gotten out of control,” Diamond said, “and are beyond what most people would consider reasonable expression or statements.”

Diamond wants to ban any references to genitalia, buttocks, breasts, poop, or pee. So, such terms as vulva, bum, nipple, dump, and wee-wee could no longer show up on car bumpers.

Unless they’re on bumper stickers, where anything still goes.

It’s not entirely clear how far this effort to cleanse our roadways of the risqué would go. Could someone named Fred Underwood be denied a plate with his initials on it? How about Mary Fredericks? Would the Federation of Underappreciated Knitters find itself even less appreciated?

And consider the fate of poor Thomas Ichabod Highbottom the Second when he requests the plate TIH2. According to Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, that well-meaning application must be rejected because if those letters showed up in a rear-view mirror it would look suspiciously like an impolite synonym for feces.

No matter how the legislation is worded, sorting out what’s allowed and what’s a grievous attack on public morality isn’t going to be easy. And simply banning all vanity plates and issuing everybody a boring number would cost the state about $2.5 million in lost revenue each year.

There is, however, a simple way to keep the highways family-friendly while also allowing unrestrained expression: Maine should start issuing license plates with punctuation marks.

A simple asterisk can render even extremely obscene expressions perfectly suitable for grandma, grandpa, and the kiddies. A romp across the top of the keyboard can express all the outrage of the vilest of curses while barely ruffling the chaste veneer of the most prudish of moral guardians.

It’s time to take a stand for the ampersand. Let’s high five the hashtag. And give a grand welcome to grawlixes (the term used for fake swear words in comic strips).

The first of these newly formulated plates should be presented to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. William Diamond, in honor of his efforts to save us from ourselves. It should read:

&#%! U BILL.

I don’t give a flying @*$+ if you email me at [email protected].

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