I'm struggling to find a term or a single word for "confusing" (see the struggle?) license plate numbers, such as:

B8B8BB8 (California plate)

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Is there even a term for that?

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    Describe exactly in what context you want to use the word or phrase--generally we want a sample sentence. Specify the criteria you'll use for accepting answers. Detail the research you've already done. List words or phrases you've already considered but rejected, and explain why. Provide information about the connotation, register, and part of speech you are looking for. Also, yes, a picture is said to be worth a thousand words ... but for the visually impaired this post isn't even a question.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 11, 2017 at 20:17
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    Obligatory XKCD: xkcd.com/1105
    – justhalf
    Oct 11, 2017 at 20:47
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because there will almost certainly just be answers giving synonyms for 'hard to read' or 'confusing' rather than anything number-plate specific. And the question then reduces to "What are some synonyms for 'hard to read' or 'confusing'?" Oct 11, 2017 at 20:49
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    Technically, the second plate isn't actually "confusing" because 0 and O are considered the same character in in license plates (at least here in Ontario)
    – ikegami
    Oct 11, 2017 at 21:48

6 Answers 6


You could say it is "obfuscated", which means "made confusing, hard to read or understand".


That applies here, in particular, because these people will have not been randomly allocated these number plates - they have gone out of their way to choose hard-to-read numberplates, presumably because they take some sort of exception to the idea of being identifiable via their license plates, and so have chosen plates which are hard to remember, or easy to make mistakes when reading.

  • +1 for pointing out that obfuscation implies that it's a deliberate action, which is probably what OP wants.
    – A C
    Oct 11, 2017 at 19:39
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    Not obfuscated. That's when you take an originally clear thing and render it unclear. Forexamplethissentencehasbeenobfuscated.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 11, 2017 at 20:12
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    And this term is specific to number plates because? / A more appropriate term may well be 'illegal', in cases where they are hard to read. Oct 11, 2017 at 20:46
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    @EdwinAshworth if they are issued by the authority responsible for number plates then by definition they are not illegal. Oct 12, 2017 at 5:04
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    @MrWonderful I don't think there are checks, but there are generally patterns for randomly generated plates - eg "letter letter number number space letter letter letter". Custom license plates tend to not fit these patterns. If you're arguing that these individuals just happened to get "0O0O0O0O", or "B8B8B8B8" from this standard system, then I think you're making a mistake. These are very unusual plates, and I think that the owners have sought them out, and then perhaps made other stylistic choices (removal of spaces etc) to maximise the effect. Oct 12, 2017 at 22:01

ambiguous (MWD)

1 a :doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness eyes of an ambiguous color b :inexplicable

2 :capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways an ambiguous smile an ambiguous term a deliberately ambiguous reply


I would use the word confusable (which is both an adjective and a noun) because this is what Unicode calls characters like these:

# Confusables
# This is a draft list of visually confusable characters

The page does list zero and O (good luck finding them in the list though):

0 ; o ; ୦ ; ০ ; ੦ ; ం ; ౦ ; ಂ ; ೦ ; ๐ ; ໐ ; ᠐ ; 〇 ; օ

Other organizations also use confusable, such as W3.

Another good noun is homoglyph:

In orthography and typography, a homoglyph is one of two or more graphemes, characters, or glyphs with shapes that appear identical or very similar.

(I would also call the license plate an "XKCD license plate", but you have to be familiar with the comic to get the joke.)

  • By this definition, the characters on the plates are confusable. Certainly relevant, but what is the term for the entire plate's inscription? I believe the question is answered above.
    – Octopus
    Oct 12, 2017 at 19:01

2. not easily understood; mysterious; unfathomable


"She called my vanity license plate inscrutable! (ICU81MI)"


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    That means that the meaning is hard to understand, not that it's easily misread. Oct 12, 2017 at 1:43
  • @jpatokal Nothing in the post led me to believe that part of the desired definition was that it was easily misread
    – chiliNUT
    Oct 12, 2017 at 2:27
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    ICU81MI ("I see you ate...") looks like it means something and is rightly called inscrutable. The B8B8B88Bs and O0O0O0s in the OP's question, on the other hand, are gibberish with no hidden meanings. Oct 12, 2017 at 5:27
  • My father loved odd license plates and in particular ones that read forwards,backwards AND upside down exactly the same (is there a word for that? must be...), EG: XOHHOX, IXOHOXI, and several other similar iterations on his various cars in California over a period of around 30 years. I think he'd have loved to have them called inscrutable. My mom drove an ancient Toyota Corona MK II station wagon for most of that same time, it's plate? GTLS1DR
    – delliottg
    Oct 12, 2017 at 14:56
  • @jpatokal i've also heard inscrutable used in place of illegible. it's not strictly dictionary definition correct, but it definitely can convey the right meaning.
    – mendota
    Oct 12, 2017 at 18:39

Not specific for just license plates, but I would call those indecipherable.

- adjective

not able to be read or understood.

synonyms: illegible, unreadable, hard to read, unintelligible, unclear;

  • "Hard to read" and "unclear" are good choices, but not "indecipherable". You don't decipher numbers and letters on a license plate. You just read them.
    – Centaurus
    Oct 11, 2017 at 14:34
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    H@Centaurus I can’t decipher the license plate of the M45. Are those letters, numbers, symbols, what, and from what jurisdiction? Oct 11, 2017 at 14:50
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    I think there is an element of deciphering involved with plates like this. Whenever I see one I try to figure out what the owner is trying to say with it. Sometimes it's very subtle. I used to work at Microsoft a while back, and someone there drove one of the new VW Beatles, their license plate? FEATURE. If you're not from the software world, you're unlikely to get the joke, but if you are, you laugh every time you see it.
    – delliottg
    Oct 12, 2017 at 15:00
  • Is the joke about bug vs feature? (To eliminate a bug from the code you make it a feature.)
    – Heimdall
    Oct 13, 2017 at 13:13

The standard California passenger automobile (not truck) plate is a number, three letters, and three numbers.

Other plates are "personalized" plates that may send a message or name the car. There is no intent to be obscure here. E.g., the plate in question could be read as "bate bate be bate". FORAIR could be a plate on an electric car, e.g., a Tesla.

It's not obscurity, it's having fun or showing off. So the poster's question is based on an incorrect premise. They are usually far more memorable than the standard plates, and they require an extra fee (every year). A Jaguar I've seen around has the plate CRIMES.

Some friends of mine working on the FreeBSD operating system wanted to get the plate FREEBSD. This was denied by the state of California because it was considered suggestive of illegal drugs, since it could be read as "free-based."

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    Re "It's not obscurity, it's having fun or showing off.", The OP is not talking about personalized license plates in general, but the two specifically pictured.
    – ikegami
    Oct 11, 2017 at 21:52
  • @ikegami - I would venture that these plates are both personalized -- the first is : bate bate b-bate, a reference that is almost certainly meaningful to the owner.
    – KevinDTimm
    Oct 12, 2017 at 13:36
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    @KevinDTimm The problem with that assumption is that there are many posts on car forums of people talking about these patterns of plates specifically because they are confusing. From a distance, there is almost no difference between an 8 and a B, a 1 and an I or an 0 and a O. The general purpose of these plates is to confuse and make it impossible, at a glance, to correctly record the sequence of similar letters.
    – JPhi1618
    Oct 12, 2017 at 16:23
  • @JPhi1618 If there are many posts about people who talk about their intent to obfuscate, someone should link as support for that hypothesis. With all Bs and 8s, a DMV would need to search 2^7 possible plates. With the standard plate (unless remembered correctly) It's (10^4)*(26^3). Even the second plate with zeros and 1s and the letters O and I would be relatively easy to find.
    – Xanne
    Oct 12, 2017 at 18:54
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    @KevinDTimm - An alternate theory is that the car owner wanted to get 8888888 as a license plate, but that plate was already taken by someone else, so B's were used in place of 8's. (Note that some oriental cultures consider 8 to be a lucky number.)
    – J.R.
    Oct 12, 2017 at 20:15

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