Michigan officials: Latin name of state tree too suggestive for license plate

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State officials rejected a forest ecologist's request for a personalized license plate that reads Pinus, a latin term for the official state tree. Photo: Bird Eye (Flickr)

Some personalized license plates are too crude for Michigan roads. That’s why the state department weeds out inappropriate requests.

But what if a plate that appears to be suggestive honors Michigan’s natural resources?

Marvin Roberson, a forest ecologist with the Sierra Club, recently doled out $55 for a personalized plate in hopes of honoring the official state tree – the white pine.

But white pine exceeds seven letters – the number allowed on personal plates.  So Roberson, who often works with scientific terms, chose “Pinus” – a shortened version of the tree’s latin name, “Pinus Strobus.”

State officials rejected his application apparently because they thought the word was too similar to penis.

Michigan’s state department dismisses personalized license plate applications that aren’t in good taste, says Kelly Chesney, a state spokeswoman. That includes plates with negative connotations, plates that promote a negative image of racial or ethnic groups and plates with references to sexual nature.

Each application is reviewed carefully, she says.

Roberson protested the decision.

“Its not that it’s anything offensive,” he says

The phrase “Pinus Strobus” appears on the state website dozens of times, Roberson says. And most people know that “Pinus” – pronounced PIE-NUS – means pine, he says. If they don’t, there’s no reason why they should be offended by their own misunderstanding.

“I don’t know what half of personalized license plates mean either,” he says.

The state has received few objections from people whose proposals were refused, Chesney says. About 3 percent of registered Michigan drivers have personalized plates.

“We encourage people to experiment with plate configurations. If a plate is rejected, we want them to have another plate that they turn to,” she says.

The state developed an online resource called “Plate It Your Way”to help drivers design personalized plates. But crude words are not available on the system. The latin word “Pinus” is now on that list.

Roberson says he’s entertaining new ideas for personalized plates – perhaps one that says “wood.” He also might seek a refund. But he’s still peeved that Michigan won’t let him honor its own state tree.

“I thought that was a good way to celebrate Michigan’s forest heritage,” he says.

What do you think?

Is “Pinus” too inappropriate for public viewing? Or was the forest ecologist cheated out of a personalized plate?

10 thoughts on “Michigan officials: Latin name of state tree too suggestive for license plate

  1. I’m with Lara; this controversy is amusing, but really sad. I don’t care if he wants a color PICTURE of a penis on his license plate, if he’ll drive responsibly in the vehicle it’s on!

  2. Wow. I’m proud to be a nerd; I tripped over this protruding pinus while looking up a Latin declension. Having my mind partially in the gutter, I find the controversy amusing, if sad.
    But I hope Dovey is being facetious, ‘cuz non-botanists worrying about knowing the Latin names for trees is beyond even my level of nerdism.
    Alex: good line! Doug: most sensible solution.

  3. i say push for pinus. we are far too puritanical in this country. people should get their minds out of the gutter and educate themselves, including regarding the latin origins of tree species!

  4. Another alternative: PSTROBUS. This abbreviation of Pinus and full spelling of the specific name (strobus) avoids the controversy, but still honors the state tree. People who know the latin name will recognize it, and for others it will be an inoffensive mystery.

  5. Issue 1) Waste of time state. Admit you were wrong in refusal to begin with and let the man get his plate. We got bigger fish to fry. 2) What is wrong with a license plate sounding like penis anyway? It is a human body part, not crude slang! 3) The state being moral police for appropriate language seems like a terrible idea to me. Thoughts?

  6. I think Marv has too much time on his hands. this story is a waste of time. go spend you time protesting the mine.

  7. I think Marvin should try “Acer” or “Populus” or “Prunus” or “Carya” or any of the scientific names for other wonderful trees we have in MI.

  8. Why are we worrying about this? We should be concentrating on how to keep our parks open and our rivers and lakes clean.

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