Vanity license plates usually induce a wry smile, a brief guffaw or a slack-jawed stare of total mystification. But some tags make you wonder who's minding the store.

Elizabeth Carter, a reader in Montgomery County, was chugging down the road the other day when she noticed a car whose Maryland plates read UPYRKLT. She decided that this must mean "up your kilt," a rather indelicate phrase (and wish).

"I'm no prude," Elizabeth said. But she couldn't figure out how the state of Maryland could have approved that tag. So she called Bob Levey, the human wailing wall, to see what he thought.

The first thing Levey observed was that UPYRKLT might not mean what Elizabeth thinks it means. It could be some obscure family nickname, I said. It could be the foreshortened name of a business. It could be a village in Outer Slobovia. It could be anything at all.

"For example," I told Elizabeth, "what if your nickname were `Bets'? If you ordered a vanity plate with those letters on it, you might very well attract complaints from people who hate gambling. You can't judge a vanity tag by its cover."

Still, Elizabeth thought (and thinks) that UPYRKLT is in poor taste. I told her that I'd explain in a column how Maryland motor vehicle officials filter potentially objectionable vanity tags without squelching either free speech or belly laughs.

Richard Scher, public information officer for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said vanity plate applications are screened by a committee of five "civilians." They often call on a library of foreign language books and dictionaries. Glossaries of slang are also available, Richard said.

In the case of plates that "may teeter that line of being accepted or rejected," an assistant attorney general makes the decision if the committee cannot.

"Most people with these plates have good intentions, and most are approved," Richard said. "Most people are really good. We're not talking about a large percentage that are trying to abuse the system."

By the way, after a bit of digging, I've learned that UPYRKLT is a gruff but well-meant expression that's been popular in Australia for several decades.

It translates roughly as "nuts to you" or "buzz off" in idiomatic American English. So if I'd been one of those five Marylanders who votes thumbs up or thumbs down, those tags would have passed.

Obviously, the actual board agreed. That may dismay Elizabeth Carter, and I can understand why it might. But once you realize that the phrase doesn't mean anything murderous or salacious, how can you find fault with a tag that displays it?

of vanity plates, Jay Levitt, of Fairfax, says he once had a set that made people scurry in the opposite direction.

"My first car was a 1979 sky blue Pinto," Jay writes. His vanity plates read: I XPLODE.

This was at the time when Ford Pintos were all over the headlines for their tendency to blow up after rear-end collisions. The tag "tended to eliminate tailgaters very quickly," Jay writes.

SEND A KID TO CAMP

Our annual drive on behalf of underprivileged children ends tomorrow. Having been a cockeyed optimist for quite some time, I'm still hoping for a last-minute tidal wave that will carry us past our goal.

Yes, gang, that's a hint. It isn't too late to make a gift to our campaign by credit card. Details appear at the end of today's column. Nor is it impossible that a gift dropped into a mailbox today would reach me by the close of business tomorrow. Hey, I can dream, right?

In any case, these last few hours will determine whether all the children who expect to go to camp this summer will go. I know how much camp bolsters a child's self-esteem and ability to work with others. I'm hoping you know so, too.

Many thanks to all who have supported our drive since it began in early June. Thanks in advance to all who will do so as we near the finish line. The neediest kids in the Washington area have always been able to count on you. They're counting on you again in 1999.

Our goal by July 30: $550,000.

In hand as of July 27: $382,345.80.

CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.

VISA OR MASTERCARD:

Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S, or 5437, and follow instructions.