The name game started with Lori Ann Phillips’ first car, a red Toyota Camry.
A friend in high school said her first set of wheels needed an identity, a moniker to make it unique.
Phillips decided on Peaches.
Between her teens and early 20s — through high school and college in her home state of Pennsylvania — she cycled through two more vehicles, each with their own fruit-themed names.
Mango was a maroon Jeep Wrangler.
Papaya was a white Ford F-150 truck.
So when it came time to leave her hometown of Wilkes-Barre 12 years ago and venture to North Carolina, Phillips loaded her belongings into a brand new Toyota RAV4 and pondered what tropical fruit she could appropriate next.
Gwyneth Paltrow had just given birth to her daughter, so Apple was out of the question, and if she wanted to put the new name on a personalized license plate, could a fruit like strawberry even fit?
Eventually Phillips stumbled upon the “little gems” of the citrus family, a fruit she had not tasted but whose name was too quirky to pass up.
From then on, her RAV4 was known as Kumquat.
For more than a decade and 216,000 miles, Phillips drove her silver SUV with the “KUMQUAT” license plate without incident. It would solicit occasional gawks at gas stations, and sometimes people would snap photos at stoplights. But nobody ever complained.
Kumquat is, after all, just a fruit.
Then last week, Phillips got the letter.
“This correspondence is in reference to the personalized license plate KUMQUAT,” Sherry Lee, a supervisor with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, wrote Aug. 25. “We are in receipt of complaints stating that the plate is offensive and in poor taste.”
It gave her 30 days to craft a written statement explaining what the word Kumquat means to her.
And if she didn’t, according to the letter, the DOT would revoke her plate.
Phillips was dumbfounded.
She had just returned from a two-week vacation and was in no mood to defend her license plate’s honor. In a fit of frustration, she vented on Facebook.
The tone of her post, Phillips told The Washington Post, went something like this: “Is this for real?” and “I can’t believe they sent this,” followed by “you’ve got to be kidding me” and “learn your fruits.”
But she started contemplating her response anyway. She printed off the kumquat Wikipedia page and tried to investigate what ulterior meanings the word might have. Phillips avoided the definitions on Urban Dictionary. At least she hadn’t spelled it like the Australians.
In the meantime, a friend of hers and the editor of the Raleigh Agenda, an online news organization, asked whether he could tell her story. The Agenda called the DOT and asked about the letter. One employee, Rebecca Richards, told the publication she could recall just one complaint about Phillips’s KUMQUAT plate. Lee, the woman who penned the warning letter, said she must issue notices to any North Carolina driver who receives a complaint, no matter how silly or unfounded they might be.
In her 26 years at the DOT, Lee told the Agenda she estimates sending out about 10 warning letters per year.
“In this day and time, things mean a lot of different things,” she told the publication. “Some people see ‘CEX,’ which is part of a standard-issue plate, and issue a complaint. You can make anything bad these days.”
The Agenda story published Aug. 31, and, within hours, the DOT had responded with a tweet.
— NCDOT (@NCDOT) August 31, 2016
“#NCDMV verified a kumquat is in fact a fruit,” it said.
At home, Phillips also received a voice-mail message, telling her she need not take any more action.
“I was a little let down,” she told The Post. “I was looking forward to the response.”
She had even schemed to complement her defensive letter with a little care package full of kumquats — for proof, she said, that the fruit really exists, even if she admittedly thinks they’re “nasty.”
About a year after she named her car Kumquat, Phillips finally tasted one. She hated it.
“It’s nasty,” Phillips told the Agenda. “I think it’s a vile little fruit.”
Even so, she loves her license plate — and already has her eye on some fresh names for her new car when Kumquat needs to be replaced.
Right now, she’s pondering Tangelo.