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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cars' white decals with black letters spell "huh?"

Newhouse News Service

Spend a few minutes behind a minivan or SUV in suburbia these days, and you'll end up with a chafed head.

From scratching.

Those oval stickers on the backs of vehicles — you know, the white ones with black initials that represent vacation spots — keep multiplying. Not only that, they are getting harder and harder to figure out.

It used to be that you saw only "OBX" for the Outer Banks, "HHI" for Hilton Head Island and perhaps "FL" for Florida.

But the phenomenon has peeled away from just representing tourist destinations. Now you can find decals for your favorite band, school, candidate, beer or Bible verse.

Go online, and you even can buy an oval sticker that reads "SWO" for "stupid white oval."

White oval decals have been around for decades in Europe. Over there, they are used to distinguish countries: F for France, I for Italy and so on.

According to EuroDecals.com, the trend jumped the ocean in 1994, when a "VT" sticker (Vermont) was created. Soon after, stickers for high-end vacation spots followed: "ACK" for Nantucket (code for the island's airport), "MV" for Martha's Vineyard.

Other drivers began asking what all those initials stood for, and more important, why someone would put an oval sticker on their ride in the first place.

That question — why — is hardly as black-and-white as the stickers themselves. It depends on what the sticker says and who is weighing in.

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Mount Holyoke College sociology professor Richard Moran thinks the "OBX" might as well stand for "obnoxious," and that folks put these decals on with one message in mind: "I am superior to you."

Status, says Moran, is no longer about career but about lifestyle.

"You don't want to be known as the insurance agent, you want to be known as the guy who vacations at Hilton Head," he says. "You're not the bus driver, you're the guy who has a summer house on the Vineyard."

And by associating yourself with a highfalutin vacation spot, he adds, you are saying that you are better than those of us who have to settle for trips to Niagara Falls.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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