In this land of 3.9 million miles of roadways, where one's car defines a person as much as his wardrobe, the vanity plate is the handkerchief in the pocket - unnecessary but a final touch.

While personalized license plates are neither new (first appearing in Connecticut in 1937) nor abundant (accounting for 2 percent of all registered plates), they are conspicuous, with messages that brag and swagger, posture and pun, declaim and disarm.A typical tag might declare the driver DEEVORSD in North Carolina, demand to know YRUFAT in Connecticut or quietly announce IMHERE in Washington.

As fashions for such exterior vanities ebb and flow (at the modest price of $10 in Virginia or more costly fee of $100 in Minnesota), so too do word connotations.

And if vanity license plates offer a window on individualism on American roadways, the attempts to regulate such freedom of expression offer another.

Across the country, state departments of motor vehicles keep lists of forbidden alphanumeric combinations that establish a kind of semiotic signpost to shifting standards of taste. And their officials have learned to interpret messages upside down and backward.

Mississippi bans two combinations. California bans at least 50,000. Both invoke the same standard: avoid messages that might offend or unduly upset the average American - an elusive character with fickle notions of good taste.

"We're talking about a perceptual crime," said Evan Nossoff, a spokesman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. "It's very difficult for the government to regulate."

But that doesn't stop Nossoff and his many cohorts from trying. Citing its "no deity policy," Virginia's motor vehicles department denied a pastor's request for GODZGUD earlier this year; both the decision and the policy were reversed.

In Washington, where God is prohibited, MENOPOZ was so disturbing to four people in 1991 that they petitioned to have it withdrawn. The state complied, which incensed the driver. "The lady screamed and hollered, and they reinstated it," said Gretchen Mischel, a clerk in the department.

Semantics is, after all, a slippery slope on which to stand firm, especially when one person's solecism might be another's profession.

California rejected a request for AIDS RN, on the grounds that it could offend other motorists. Exquisitely offended by the insult to his occupation, the nurse appealed to higher authorities at the department of motor vehicles - and won.

PPDR? Virginia officials suspended its rule forbidding bathroom vocabulary when they learned that the petitioner for the plate was a urologist. "He was not trying to say `pee on you,"' said James M. Davidson, supervisor for reserved licenses in the state.

Verdicts on license plates, like those on crime, often turn on intent. So in an age when drugs are more accessible than happiness, IMSOHI would appear to be an easy nix.

Not so to those Virginians. "You can be high on life or high on religion," Davidson said, or, as was the case, high off the ground. The department swallowed the driver's argument that his pickup truck entitled him to the tag.

Back in the days when some folk whispered about other people's religious persuasion, those words were banned from license plates.

Charles Allen, a veteran word watcher in the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, recalled that his friend Jesse Eugene Washington had to return a set proudly emblazoned with his initials in the 1960's because of a complaint.

"They felt like JEW shouldn't be displayed, I guess," Allen said. Last year the request surfaced again, this time by James E. Williams. "Nobody seemed to be worried about it," he said.

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But 25 years after the gay rights movement began, GAYLIB is still unwelcome on Illinois roads. "In some circles, it could be deemed as offensive," said Jim Pemberton, a clerk in that state's bureau.

A California woman with an affinity for cats won the right to use a feline nickname on her set of plates. The piece de resistance that won them was a photograph of her car - a Mercury Lynx - adorned with cat decals and stuffed felines in the back window.

Today the word police approve, without batting an eyelash, some supposedly naughty words, which is a clear indication that times are changing.

"Some of the words on there are just plain stupid," said Ms. Mischel, one of two screeners in the Washington department, recalling a recent example, "The word was `lust.' That's ridiculous." It was removed at the request of one of her colleagues who happens to be named Lust.

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