Platespeak – the often bizarre pidgin of personalised number plates – is a compromise between red tape and self-expression. But a proposed law could threaten its survival, says David Wilkins

Is one of Britain's best-loved dialects heading for oblivion? This is the curious language of personalised number plates, a lingo in which "Hair do" is spelled H41 RD0 (as purchased by celebrity hairstylist Nicky Clarke) and BOT 70M is a cheeky, if not particularly sophisticated, joke.

They might may us groan, but to many, flashy plates are highly covetable – as attested by the sums paid for the most desirable registrations, and the close approximation to a common first name can easily fetch six-figures.

To prevent things getting out of hand, the UK authorities have always insisted on a few guidelines. Personalised numbers have to have to conform to the systems of prefixes and suffixes, operated since 1963, that indicate the age of the car to which they were originally attached; there are also rules on the spacing and style of characters, although these are often ignored.

But now Essex Tory MP James Duddridge wants to allow British motorists to express themselves more freely. Last week, he proposed a bill designed to loosen regulations that currently govern the format of personalised number plates, addressing their increased popularity. It used to be only a wealthy few who could customise their cars – Jimmy Tarbuck's COM 1C and Paul Daniels's MAG 1C are some of the best-known examples – but now, far more of us want to get in on the act.

The existing rules mean that the supply of the most in-demand words and phrases – in particular pre-1963 style plates which do not have an age-related component – cannot be increased in order to meet demand, meaning that prices have been on a steep upward trend for decades. Earlier this year, for example, F1 went for £440,625, putting it beyond the reach of all but lottery winners and hedge-fund managers. The result has been that those who cannot afford the best plates have been forced to use a bit of ingenuity in order to get a close approximation of the word or words they really want.

These drivers rely on "platespeak", as it is known in the business, to compose their unique signage – substituting a "5" for an "S", for example, an "A" for a "4", and so on.

Duddridge objects to this. He wants to know why one of his constituents, wanting to advertise their home town on a number plate, should have to resort to an awkward piece of platespeak such as S44 FND (SARFEND) rather than simply being allowed to buy a plate that reads SOUTHEND. Under his scheme, he would be able to buy JAMES, rather than having to settle for J4 MES, or apply for a new plate, JPD, instead of having to bid for the prohibitively expensive pre-1963 JPD1.

If Duddridge gets his way, we'd miss out on deciphering platespeak. But another concern with his plan is that it might undermine the prices of existing plates and the trade in them; could the value of J4 MES really be left unaffected by the release of the previously unavailable JAMES?

Rick Cadger of, one of the leading companies in the secondary sale of plates, thinks that this might be less of an issue than it at first appears – there are after all, hundreds of potential buyers for the word James and, in any case, under the Duddridge proposals, the DVLA would continue to control the release of plates in order to support values. Cadger thinks that objections to the proposals are less likely to come from the trade than, for example, the police, whose work might be made more difficult if there were large numbers of cars bearing similar numbers on the roads.

Among European nations, Britain is unique in its obsession with personalised number plates; in Germany, if you buy a Mercedes, the dealer may discreetly exercise a bit of influence with the local registration office in order to secure you a plate incorporating your initials, but that's about it.

For the Continentals, number plates are all about location, location, location; in France, for example, a "75" suffix instantly associates a car with Paris, while in Germany, "M" shows that a German car is registered in Munich. In 1994, Italy dropped regional identifiers but, after protests, these had to be reintroduced in modified form in 1999.

In Britain, by contrast, it is quite difficult to link a car or its driver to a location via the number plate – except, of course, if like James Duddridge, it comes from E55 EXX, in which case the platespeak is likely to give the game away.

Habla platespeak?

A bumper guide to alphabet and spelling

0 = O

1= I

12 = R

13 = B

2 = Z

3 = E

4 = A

5 = S

6 = G

7 = T or Y

8 = B

Enabling the following plates:







SAV 46E = "Savage" – owned by Kevin Savage of record label Savage Trax

F1 NED – "Fined" – owned by the proprietor of parkingappeals, a site that campaigns against the incorrect issue of parking fines

MAG 1C – "Magic" – owned by magician Paul Daniels

D1 DDY – "Diddy" – owned by DJ Diddy David Hamilton

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