Lori Ann Phillips received an unwelcome surprise when she returned to her Raleigh home from a two-week vacation Monday night: a letter from the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Motor Vehicles informing her that her license plate—which has read “KUMQUAT” since 2004—was at risk of being revoked.
“This correspondence is in reference to the personalized license plate KUMQUAT,” reads the letter. “We are in receipt of complaints stating that the plate is offensive and in poor taste.”
Actually, according to DOT employee Rebecca Richards, make that one complaint.
“Yes, I remember that one,” says Richards. “That’s a fruit very similar to an orange but smaller, you know? We figured the complainant was just looking too far into things, because that’s an actual growing thing.”
But that didn’t keep Richards’ supervisor, Special License Plate Unit supervisor Sherry Lee, from sending Phillips the notice that threatens to recall the plate. Based on department protocol, she says, she must issue such notices to anyone implicated in any complaint she receives, no matter how frivolous the issue may seem to her. Lee, who has worked with the DOT for twenty-six years, estimates she sends at most ten such letters per year.
“In this day and time, things mean a lot of different things,” she says. “Some people see ‘CEX,’ which is part of a standard-issue plate, and issue a complaint. You can make anything bad these days.”
The matter doesn’t end here for Phillips or the state. She has thirty days to respond with a written explanation of what the word “kumquat” means to her. Lee will then convene a committee of four to review the letter and decide if the justification is valid.
Phillips has owned a long string of cars named for fruit, including “Peaches,” “Mango,” and, most recently, a truck named “Papaya.” “Kumquat,” she says, just seemed like a good addition to the family, and it’s served her well for a dozen years and more than 200,000 miles. She reckons that’s sufficient reason for the state, but she’s not quite sure how she’ll respond yet.
“This is so stupid that I’m unsure what I want to say,” she says. “I want to send something snarky and pissy, but I don’t want to give them more fodder for recalling it.”
Indeed, Lee says that if she doesn’t receive a fair response (or any response at all) in thirty days, she will recall the plate automatically and send Phillips a new, non-personalized license. Phillips would then need to surrender the plate.
“I don’t even like kumquats. It’s nasty,” Phillips says. “I think it’s a vile little fruit, but I thought it was a cool-sounding fruit name.”
Asked if she thinks the word “kumquat” is nasty enough to be pulled from a license plate, however, Lee is a little less definitive. She pauses, starts to speak, and pauses again.
“That,” she says, “that is probably not something I should speak on.”
Let’s all just be glad (sad?) that Phillips didn’t go with the Australian English spelling.
In a rather bold twenty-first century move, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has informed us via Twitter this afternoon that they have verified that a kumquat is indeed a fruit. They have now left two phone messages with Lori Ann Phillips, explaining that no more action is required.
— NCDOT (@NCDOT) August 31, 2016