Unintelligible status symbols?
October 8, 2008 4:31 PM   Subscribe

What are those oval stickers with 2-3 capital letters in them? If the car is parked, I can get close enough to see that the letters are codes for different geographical locations, but you can't see that when you and the other car are on the road, so I don't quite get the concept. If I'm going to be envious, I need to be able to decode the things. Can anyone explain?
posted by acrasis to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Comes from Europe. All/lots-of cars have their 3 letter country code on the back.

Don't know if a legal requirement (so local cops know where to decode the variety of license plates) or if it's just a "hello, I'm from xxxxxx" thing.
posted by Xhris at 4:37 PM on October 8, 2008

It's not a legal requirement AFAIK, it's more of a 'hello' thing, personally I've never really understood it....
posted by Chairboy at 4:41 PM on October 8, 2008

They're international vehicle registration codes and there's a list of the codes on Wikipedia (of course).
posted by Lionel d'Lion at 4:42 PM on October 8, 2008

There used to be a requirement to have the a sticker identifying where your car is registered if you travel outside the borders of your country. Read more about it and see all the codes here. E.U. license plates feature the same country code on the left side of the license plate now.
posted by halogen at 4:43 PM on October 8, 2008

It seems that Americans have also appropriated the phenomenon. I saw a lot of SLO stickers around San Luis Obispo, and here in Massachusetts, the ACK sticker is pretty common (the airport code for Nantucket).
posted by AwkwardPause at 4:45 PM on October 8, 2008

If you mean the stickers that have letters approximately 2-3 inches high (white background, black letters) then they are the country codes from days of yore for identifying cars from foreign countries (as Xhris says). I believe, at one stage, they were either compulsory or strongly approved of. They certainly aren't a legal requirement now, though.

However, there's no way you can't read these at some considerable distance, so either we are off on our assessment, or your eyesight is incredibly bad.
posted by Brockles at 4:45 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

On the East coast of the US you see a lot of OBX for Outer Banks.
posted by idb at 4:49 PM on October 8, 2008

Response by poster: I should have indicated that I'm in the US. The ones I've seen on parked cars are for ridiculous places like Frederick, MD, that no one could possibly care you came from. And I've seen so many different 3-letter codes that it boggles my mind that anyone could memorize the code. I just don't get it.
posted by acrasis at 4:49 PM on October 8, 2008

A lot of pretentious jackasses in the U.S. put them on their cars to signify their worldliness.
posted by jayder at 4:51 PM on October 8, 2008

There are a lot of joke country code stickers out there, like the aforementioned SLO, or "WTF".
posted by lore at 4:51 PM on October 8, 2008

Best answer: "And I've seen so many different 3-letter codes that it boggles my mind that anyone could memorize the code."

You're not supposed to memorize the code, in part because there is no overall code. Some of the stickers have the explanation in small text, in others you're just supposed to chuckle if you're in the know.
posted by lore at 4:52 PM on October 8, 2008

Best answer: I always understood them to be code for places where people had summer homes or liked to vacation. That's why OBX and ACK are so popular. I see a lot of ADK for the Adirondacks, and for awhile I lived on a Georgia Island where lots of cars had SSI (St. Simon's Island) stickers.
posted by saffry at 4:56 PM on October 8, 2008

In my area of the U.S. (VA), they're mostly just a wink-wink-nudge-nudge "hey, look where I went on vacation" thing. Lots are places are appropriating the fad, like a local restaurant has one that says its initials , and you get a $5 coupon if you buy one and stick it on your car.
posted by Hargrimm at 4:57 PM on October 8, 2008

I suspect "ACK" is popular because it's a geek joke. (Is there a "NAK"?)
posted by Class Goat at 5:00 PM on October 8, 2008

They're for all sorts of things. My girlfriend is a fan of the band "Over the Rhine," so she has one on her car that says (OtR). It doesn't mean anything except the specific few people who would identify it.
posted by SNWidget at 5:01 PM on October 8, 2008

They seem to be a fad in the US, based on those European stickers. People either have them to represent where they live, or where they've been. Or they're some sort of inside joke.
posted by fructose at 5:02 PM on October 8, 2008

In my area, these were popular around the turn of the century for identifying what part of town you lived in, and were pretty typically limited to the more hoity-toity places or beach communities. La Jolla had LJ, Rancho Santa Fe had RSF, Ocean Beach had OB, Pacific Beach had PB, Cardiff-by-the-Sea had CBS, and so on -- basically places where someone could, rightly or wrongly, brag about where they were from. The stickers were originally made by a company called LoCals (a portmanteau of local and Cal) and covered a range of areas across southern California. I've also seen ones that have abbreviations for areas in Orange County and LA.

I've hardly seen them at all the last couple years, which is either due to them dropping in popularity or that I don't work in La Jolla any more.
posted by LionIndex at 5:08 PM on October 8, 2008

my favorite. :)
posted by nitsuj at 5:09 PM on October 8, 2008

I have one that says FOO from ThinkGeek, although it looks like they don't sell them anymore. In the southeast I see a lot of OBX and HHI (Hilton Head Island).
posted by clerestory at 5:19 PM on October 8, 2008

OK, nit, I need an explanation.
posted by yclipse at 5:23 PM on October 8, 2008

Very Great Britain?
posted by Chairboy at 5:26 PM on October 8, 2008

the best one I ever saw was in Pittsburgh: N'AT.
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:29 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's short for "vagabond", a term that has lately developed a sort of cachet for traveling youth.
posted by phrontist at 5:29 PM on October 8, 2008

Are you saying that you don't understand why people would want to have bumperstickers advertising locations for which they feel affinity? Or that these in particular seem ineffective because they're too small to read? If the former, there are some good explanations above. If the latter, I'd suggest you have your eyes checked, as people with normal vision should be able to read 3 inch-high letters from 10 feet away.
posted by decathecting at 5:32 PM on October 8, 2008

Where I'm from (Victoria, B.C.) these tend to be used by European immigrants to indicate their country of origin. My parents had an NL sticker because they immigrated from Holland and were proud of their Dutch heritage even in their new home of Canada. Back when the stickers were compulsory in Europe for travel outside of the home country (because old license plates had no indication of their country, unlike license plates in the US and Canada which have always indicated the state/province of origin) it'd just be something you brought back with you after a visit to the old country and stuck on your car.
posted by Emanuel at 5:32 PM on October 8, 2008

"the best one I ever saw was in Pittsburgh: N'AT."

Even better is "N@"
posted by dforemsky at 6:55 PM on October 8, 2008

I always understood them to be code for places where people had summer homes or liked to vacation.

Indeed the trend in the U.S. seems to have been modelled on the European auto stickers/decals and started with those which were identified by the Federal Aviation Administration’s official 3 letter code for airports at such places: ACK -- Nantucket.

Others created stickers based on city/town/county license plate I.D.'s, such as ZG - Aspen/Pitken County, CO.

Later others caught on, but used abbreviations of the placename KW -- Key West, FI -- Fire Island, etc.
posted by ericb at 7:08 PM on October 8, 2008

I live in ridiculous Frederick MD and I have one on my car that says FHS for Frederick High School - we had them made at makestickers.com - you can order anywhere from 1 to however many you can afford. I've often thought I'd like one that says "MeFi" for the long trip down I-270.
posted by ersatzkat at 7:28 PM on October 8, 2008

I think this is one of those preppy fads that has leaked into the general population.
posted by caddis at 8:35 PM on October 8, 2008

In this area, they're more likely to be ethnic pride than anything else. Most often people of Scandinavian or maybe Baltic ancestry.
posted by gimonca at 8:59 PM on October 8, 2008

Around here they're usually BRC for Black Rock City.
posted by fshgrl at 9:38 PM on October 8, 2008

In the Upper Midwest these are, as gimonca notes, particularly popular for Scandinavian-Americans, often adjacent to the appropriate national flag. The "Yuppie" vacation-spot and/or just humorous locality abbreviation existed but never was widespread, at least in Chicago. I remember a few "UP" stickers though.

I really don't think in most cases envy is the object. It's more like a "hello" to those in the know.
posted by dhartung at 12:06 AM on October 9, 2008

European anecdata and totally incidental to your question, but:

About fifteen-twenty years ago, camping holiday operators would send out a country code sticker with the booking confirmation. This was the kind of holiday where budget and the cost of flying at the time meant you could assume everyone was going to go by car ferry - seriously, hearing of people flying was like hearing they were bathing in champagne, indulgent and bizarre. Every car on the campsite and the ferry had a country code sticker, and it did serve both a social and informative function - "hello, where in Germany are you from?" to saving the campsite coordinators or children's group staff from bursting into French to a Welsh family. The stickers would just stay on after the holiday (to my car-lovin' dad's displeasure - it wasn't mandatory but it would have been weird to not use it).

I would be idly interested in knowing how much the popularity of those holidays had decreased, because I can't remember the last time I've seen one of those stickers, and cheap flights are (currently) ubiquitous. I can't imagine any of the young families I know, equivalent in income/standard of living to my family when I was young, going for anything like that.
posted by carbide at 3:55 AM on October 9, 2008

Around these parts (what counts for affluent Mississippi), those stickers break down into two camps: where you go to snow ski or what Gulf Coast beach you vacation at. How pretentious that you need a sticker on your car to prove you go on vacations.

I've been seeing far fewer band-related ones: OAR or DMB for the college kids.
posted by fijiwriter at 5:02 AM on October 9, 2008

carbide, in 1988 my best friend & his dad flew from the U.S. to London and bought a used car at auction. They drove all around Europe for three months (and I joined them for about five weeks. Wheee!) The car had a sticker reading "GB," which francophone friends told us the French mocked for meaning "roast beef." Not being British ourselves, we found this hilarious.

Though weexpecte himto abandon the POS before it could disintegrate, Bluesmobile-like, my friend's dad actually sold the card again at a car auction in Whitechapel after logging thousands of miles on it. He'd also done work like replacing the brakes (which failed in the Alps!) while parked in a campground atop a ridge outside Nice. Only one way to test them: drive down toward the sea! *gulp*
posted by wenestvedt at 6:11 AM on October 9, 2008

Stuff White People Like says:

"The only other acceptable sticker option for white people is the white oval country tag sticker used commonly in Europe to help identify cars that cross international borders. Though they actually serve a function in Europe, white people use the stickers to show people where they like to take vacations. If you know a white person with one of these stickers, it’s always a good idea to ask them about where they got the sticker. Your question will justify the presence of the sticker and make the white person feel great."
posted by apostrophe at 6:43 AM on October 9, 2008

I've spent many a vacation in Plum Island, MA and its sticker would add some absolute geek value to any car - I'm surprised I haven't seen more of them:


In this area, they're more likely to be ethnic pride than anything else. Most often people of Scandinavian or maybe Baltic ancestry.

Funny story: I lived in Iceland and was married to an Icelander. On my last trip to Iceland in June of '07, I bought an "IS" sticker for my car. (Complete with shiny Icelandic flag!)

In July we broke up.

In September, I sold the car.

Let this be a warning to you.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:24 AM on October 9, 2008

BiH - Bosni i Herzegovini, baby!
posted by atchafalaya at 9:55 PM on October 9, 2008

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