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Deaf Culture: Namesigns
(Article 4)
Also see: namesigns (1)
Also see: namesigns (2)

Also see: name signs (3)


Sandy:  How are "name signs" established?

Dr. Bill: Name signs are somewhat like "Indian names." You may have seen the movie, "Dances with Wolves?"

Sandy: :-)

Dr. Bill: The hero in the movie got that name because he was playing around in a field with a wolf. We Deaf will sometimes assign you a name based on something you do or a physical characteristic you have. Or you might get an arbitrary name sign like the first letter of your name tapped on your chin or some other location.

Remember, your "Hearing" standards of culture don't apply here. We Deaf will sometimes give a name sign to someone with a facial scar--that points out the fact that the person has a scar. This would be rude in Hearing culture because it calls attention to a physical "defect"  but to us Deaf it is obvious and effective. Don't think we are rude because of it. To us it is normal. After all, the person knows he has a scar.

In a message dated 5/8/2004 8:56:45 AM Pacific Daylight Time, RobertCMazur writes:

Hi Dr. Bill,
Found the NAME SIGNS section in the library. If I'm reading the article correctly, name signs are equivalent to monikers that we use like "SLIM" for a skinny person. They can also be mis-monikers, so that a fat person could be called "SLIM."

However, my name is Robert, and if there isn't an acceptable ASL fingerspell short form, or handsign, then I'll have to spell it in full. My family and friends all call me Robert. I've never been given a "pet" or "nick" name. When I asked about this, they'd all say that I "looked" like a "Robert," and that nothing else seemed right to call me by. Go figure!

In the radio amateur (Ham) world, my international callsign is VA3ROM. Any other Ham in the world would instantly know that I'm from Ontario, Canada and would simply call me R-O-M, and not use my given name at all. My friend Steven, VE3DP, would be called D-P (or DELTA-PAPA. 3-letter suffices aren't sounded phonetically after the initial name/callsign introductions.) Since, most of my friends are Hams, and I've been R-O-M for so long, that's become my monicker, or radio NAME SIGN. Even my callsign is just my initials, which was assigned at the issuing office. Guess the radio inspector thought that I "looked" like an R-O-M!

Now, if I stepped into the culturally Deaf world, I would have to accept and respect its history and traditions, just as I have in the radio world. But, even though I may be given a NAME SIGN, flattering or otherwise, by new Deaf friends, I would probably never use the NAME SIGN, especially if I didn't like it, just ROBERT#. Unless they also happened to be Deaf Hams. Then we would just NAME SIGN to each other's callsign prefixes!

Hopefully, I'm not being overly prickly or sensitive, or misunderstanding the concept of NAME SIGNS, and talking through my hat on this issue. My wife always called me Robert, she said that nothing else seemed to fit. Go figure!


P.S. I know that you a very busy. Don't feel obligated to reply to my rant. I'll be butting heads on on this issue locally in a while, and probably get the NAME SIGN of "STUBBORN" if I'm lucky, and "DONKEY" if I'm not. LOL.

Allow me to bestow upon you your first ASL namesign:
Tap the tip of an "R" handshape twice on the side of your head just above your ear. But you should not use that name sign until you have checked with the local Deaf in your area to make sure that doesn't conflict with any existing name signs.  Suppose someone already has that name sign? That is why it is always best to get your name sign from a local native Deaf adult ASL signer.
- Dr. Bill

[Updated September 2010]

Belinda, my wife, received her "first" namesign from her hearing teacher at the Kern County Deaf Day Program.  The namesign was a "B" on the chin.  The other Deaf kids teased her about it for a couple of years because it was similar to the sign for b_tch.  Then in fifth grade she went to Deaf camp where one of the Deaf teachers upon seeing the "b on the chin" namesign remarked that maybe her namesign should be a "B" on the nose for being full of sh_t. [Note: The teacher was not seriously planning on giving that as the name sign, he was simply commenting on the inappropriateness of the original name sign.]
Belinda (a child at the time) decided then and there to change her name to a "B moving downward at the side of the head" -- representing her long hair (at the time).  Later when she got a bit older others in the Deaf community began using an arbitrary namesign for her consisting of a the first letter of her name tapped to the side of the chin.  For the past couple of decades though she has used the downward "B" alongside the head.  A few people (at church) started signing a "V" on the side of the chin, but that seems to have gone away now and we are back to the "B" alongside the head.
- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 7/18/2006 12:06:32 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, spreetster@ writes:
Dr. Bill,
I have a question regarding name signs.  I am a hearing teacher of 7 hearing students who have significant developmental disabilities.  They are all nonverbal, and my main goal was to find a system of communication for them.  We tried PECS and communication boards all year with no results, and finally found success using signs.  Naturally, I'm excited about this and plan to expand the signing in the coming school year.  We are in a small, rural county with no Deaf community whatsoever...I don't know of anyone who signs.  Here's my question:  I know you can't assign yourself a name sign, nor can a hearing person assign a name sign, but in my situation, doing a limited number of simple signs with my students, can I?  I feel like the children need a way to refer to each other, and a way to express their own identity. 
Amanda Bock
5541 Merle Avenue, Columbus, GA, 31909
LK Moss Primary School
Special Education Teacher, Early Intervention
Focus: Early Intervention for students ages 3+ with significant developmental delays.

There is a very real danger of a fledgling signer handing out name signs of an embarrassing or offensive nature.  For example, you might have a student named Paul who always smells things.  You might think it is a good idea to sign the letter "P" on the nose to indicate Paul.  That would be very inappropriate since that particular sign happens to be one of the signs for "P_NIS."  That is one of the reasons why in the Deaf community we have that "rule" regarding getting your name sign from a Deaf person.
While it is "best" to have a Deaf person (who is very familiar with ASL) assign some namesigns to you and your students for classroom use. We are talking about the creation of "temporary" name signs until you are able to have a Deaf person (or at least a highly skilled local interpreter with strong ties to the local Deaf community check them out). 
For now you may wish to tap the initial of their first names just below the non-dominant shoulder (generally the "upper left hand area of the chest") or the forearm which are relatively safe areas. And then at the first chance you get, ask a Deaf person to review your sign choices and either approve them or suggest new ones.
- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 7/18/2006 3:28:25 PM Pacific Daylight Time, spreetster@  writes:
Dr. Bill,
Thank you for a very insightful answer.  I hadn't thought of that.  I guess I should have, after reading the story of your wife's name sign!  Just to let you know, the initials are L, D, S, T, K, M, and then there's another T.  I'll do all under the shoulder, except one T will be on the left forearm.  If any of those have another meaning, will you let me know?  Thank you for your consideration!

The L hand on the upper left chest could be interpreted as LAZY if it is palm back.  If you make contact with the tip of the thumb (palm down) it wouldn't mean anything.
Some people "might" try to claim a "D" means detective, and an "M" means missionary or morals.  But those two signs tend to use a small rotational movement rather than a double tap.
- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 12/31/2006 10:48:29 PM Pacific Standard Time, an ASL Hero writes:
The deaf folks in south Texas use both [arbitrary and descriptive name signs] some only the strictly basic, initial on the chest.  Others had very interesting stories behind their signs--from hearing moms, in most cases, occasionally not. [In most cases the] reason for the descriptive name sign was from unique behaviour, whereas another kid in the family had a completely [arbitrary] initialized signed name.  It made me think of the native American Indians, and how some kids were named later [according] to their personality after it blossomed, or after a name was earned in adulthood (not entirely the same principle, of course).
Terrific information about the Native Americans. Wonderful comparison.
- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 6/9/2004 12:56:18 PM Pacific Daylight Time, Dr. Don G. writes:

A name sign is supposed to be given to you, and only by a Deaf person, although in some cases, it can be and has been from CODAs. ...It is typically indicative that one has been accepted into the Deaf community by Deaf people, although I have noticed that the younger generation seems to be getting them by younger deaf people who I would say don't really understand the rules for naming or when to name, but the hearing kids insist on keeping their name sign since they think that since the person was deaf, it is therefore theirs to keep. 

I have heard it said that name signs given by Hearing people are often "wrong" in that the Hearing people don't know the "rules" for name signs.  for example, I have heard that the Initialized sign-"Hair" combination is one of those sign names that violates the name signs "rules".  Another example I know of, there is a boy at CSDF named Tyler whose name sign is "T-Y" or maybe "T-L" or "T-R" on the chest (it might be one of  the latter two-- I remember when my wife mentioned that sign name I was startled at the strangeness of the sign name) that was given to him by his former public school classroom teacher (Hearing).  It didn't conform to the rules -- if it was T+ last initial, that would be ok, but to take two letters from the first name, especially since the letters chosen were phonically based, just looked wrong.  Look up Sam Supalla's Book of Name Signs.  He describes the rules for naming in there, and gives acceptable combinations.  I'm sure he missed a few, but for the most part it gibes. 

I used to give name signs to my students who came into my ASL 3 class, figuring they had continued their education far enough into ASL that they deserved one, but this became time consuming and hard to think of really good name signs for them, so I discontinued that practice. 

As for me, I never really had a name sign.  When I was in MSSD, some of the kids tried to give me name signs that were either as a joke or somewhat insulting -- dealing with my religion or relating to physical features (glasses, nose) that I didn't want emphasized as my name sign.  So I never accepted any of these.  Nothing ever stuck.  When I was in Gally, in my Fraternity we had 3 or 4 Dons (I can only remember 3, but that is still enough...) so we would mention them by their name and last initial. 
One of my friends at Gally had a good name sign story.  His parents are Deaf also, and they would go to the Deaf Club.  His father had a name sign with I think B on the chin for "Bailey" (their last name).  When it was time to go, they would go looking for their son Bruce, who had disappeared off into some dark recesses with his friends.  So the parents would go looking for their son, and ask the other Deafies there where their son was.  The word would go around asking "WHERE BAILEY SON?".  Soon enough, BAILEY SON became compounded and assimilated into the single sign name B-in elbow, and that is the name sign he has to this day. 

--Don G.

In a message dated 1/2/2007 7:56:30 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, jdarling@ writes:
This note is in reply to your name signs [discussion].  I am the child of Deaf parents (only child) and culturally deaf, yet no one ever gave me a namesign.  When I started working with deaf children in the schools, they gave me a name sign.  Curious. 

Dear jdarling,
Makes me wonder if your first name is very short.  Sometimes it is just as fast and easy to spell a person's name as it is to give them a namesign.
My name, B-I-L-L spells very quickly and is often used instead of my namesign (a "V" to the side of the head).

In a message dated 1/3/2007 4:16:06 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, JDARLING@ writes:
Yes, my name is Jean, so I guess you could be right.  To tell you the truth, I guess it really doesn't matter.  I have many deaf friends, some I've known all my life and others I've met over the years and it really was never that important. 

In a message dated 08/08/11 19:59:48 Pacific Daylight Time, noahmats@ writes:
Hi Dr. Bill,
I was just wondering if you could put up name signs on I would really want to know my own name sign in ASL. And you stated that we can email you our concerns about the website. Thank you!!
- Noaa
There is not "one" specific name sign for all people named "Noaa."
You should meet and interact with local Deaf people and then eventually one of them will assign you a name sign.
-- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 2/20/2013 5:26:01 P.M. Pacific Standard Time, writes:
My name is Sammi _____, I'm from South Dakota. I have a question for you regarding name signs. I am hard of hearing because of Meniere's disease. I still have a little hearing but am quickly losing it. My friends and I learned sign language to communicate easier. We use PSE because they weren't grasping ASL as well... I have Deaf friends from out of state that I skype with using sign language and they have given me a sign name. What I want to know is if it's proper to give my friends a sign name? Here in south dakota we don't have deaf clubs or events...and the deaf school even had to close its I consider myself part of the Deaf community as much as I can be but I don't want to offend anyone else because maybe other people in the Deaf community....your thoughts?

While it may not exactly be safe for you to give your friend a name sign without being familiar with his or her local Deaf community -- it is acceptable on a "for now" basis. After all, as you say, you are as much a part of the Deaf Community as your circumstances allow. You are transitioning into your own Deafhood. If you give your friend a name sign and later someone in the local Deaf community complains or wants to change it (either because it is offensive, breaks grammar rules, or duplicates someone else's sign) just be humble and ask them for suggestions on a better name sign. Then move on.
-- Dr. Bill

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