A real snafu

Last autumn, Douglas Potter of Whitehorse ordered what he thought was the perfect vanity plates for his Dodge pickup. SNAFU, they read, in homage to Yukon's Snafu Lake, found along the Atlin Road just shy of the BC border.

Last autumn, Douglas Potter of Whitehorse ordered what he thought was the perfect vanity plates for his Dodge pickup.

SNAFU, they read, in homage to Yukon’s Snafu Lake, found along the Atlin Road just shy of the BC border.

“I’ve always enjoyed hunting and fishing, and I have good memories out at Snafu,” he said. “The one night, my daughter had a birthday party out there and we ended up sleeping in a van all night, me and four teenagers, because of a bear that came into the campground. It’s just been a fun place to go.”

But Yukon’s motor vehicles branch has had second thoughts about issuing the plates. It recently sent Potter a letter that asks him to return them.

“Unfortunately SNAFU appears on our list of banned vanity plates based on ‘offensive language’ connotations,” the letter states.

The word is an acronym which, in its most restrained form, stands for “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up,” although its more common definition is considerably more vulgar.

The term is believed to have been coined by American or British soldiers during the Second World War, along with a related term, TARFU, which stands for “Things Are Really Fouled Up.”

Both words made their way onto the Yukon map in the early 1950s, shortly after the construction of the Atlin Road by the Canadian army engineers in 1949 and 1950. There’s a Snafu Creek, Snafu Lake and Tarfu Lake.

Today, snafu is popularly understood to mean a state of confusion. Neither the Oxford Dictionary nor Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary consider it to be vulgar. It’s uncontroversial enough for the New York Times to include it in headlines.

And, Potter notes, both SNAFU and TARFU grace several publications of the Yukon government, from maps to hunting-and-fishing regulations and road signs, which all refer to the official place names.

“It’s been accepted in the Yukon for 60-odd years,” said Potter. “They wouldn’t name a lake after it if it was a bad word.”

The letter to Potter asks that he return the plates by April 15 and offers him replacements for free. Potter’s not interested and doesn’t plan to comply.

“I just think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “If it’s on the banned list, why did they give me the licence plate in the first place? And it’s six months later. It’s just dumb.

“They’ll probably just cancel the plate on me. But I’ll hang it up on the wall.”

His friend tried to register TARFU recently and was denied. “The guy took her name and number, didn’t even take a deposit, and then called her back a few days later and said it was banned.”

Potter plans to appeal the decision. But both the letter writer and his boss are on vacation for the next week.

And no, it doesn’t escape Potter that the word snafu is an apt description for his predicament. “It’s ironic,” he said.

“I didn’t get the licence plate to offend anybody. It’s a great place to fish.”

NDP need not apply

Sorry, Steve Cardiff.

Yukon’s MLA for Mount Lorne and other boosters of the New Democratic Party will be dismayed to learn that NDP is among the many words banned from gracing territorial vanity licence plates.

NDP is out for its “political connotation.”

No, Premier Dennis Fentie didn’t draw up the list.

The 50-page document, which includes approximately 3,000 words, dates to 1982, and it’s pretty clear that it’s made in America.

As much as a segment of American society fears public health care and other NDP mainstays, the list-writers were more likely thinking of a far-right Austrian political party by the same name that was banned as a neo-Nazi organization in 1988.

The list is heavy with ethnic and racial slurs, sexual language and drug slang.

It’s not the last word on whether a vanity plate is approved. It merely serves as a guideline, according to territorial policy. “The department recognizes that the list may change with time and that some slogans that are not found on the list are also unacceptable,” the policy states.

“Similarly, there may be slogans listed that become acceptable in time.

“All requests for personalized licence plates will be assessed on a case-by-case basis and the decision to issue one rests with the deputy registrar of motor vehicles.”

IMPNXN is banned on the grounds that it once stood as shorthand for “impeach Nixon.” As the former US president was pardoned in 1974 and died in 1994, the slogan is dated indeed.

The word HOIKA appears to be banned for no other reason than it belongs to a “foreign language,” which is deemed “unacceptable.” It’s unclear what the word means – an internet search pulls up nothing more than some websites dedicated to Russian dance.

JESUS, GOD and BUDDHA are all out, for fear of offending the pious. GURU is no good. Neither is SUNGOD, which is said to refer to a “false god.”

GREENY is forbidden because it may refer to drug use. So is MOON, which is apparently slang for the hallucinogenic drug peyote.

All words that could be taken for sexual boasts are out, including IAMGOOD.

BAMBIE is banned because it could be taken as sexual advertising – the name is a slang term for a prostitute. FUNK is also verboten because of “sexual connotations.”

Among the least-titillating terms banned for fear of sexual impropriety is ZYGOTE.

Contact John Thompson at


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