Using Name Signs for Personal Names

One aspect of deaf culture is the use of personal "sign names." These names often reflect the person's character. I don't really have a sign name myself; some people just call me "J," drawing a letter J in the air.

A community member asked a question about the use of sign names:

"I have a question I have been wondering about for a while. I want to select a good ASL 'short form' of my name to use. (rather than spelling C-A-I-T-L-Y-N each time...) I have seen the names of some of my friends, and I have an idea of what I want to use, but I am not sure if it might already be a sign for something else, or if it's appropriate.
I am very musical: I sing, play piano, oboe and lots of other things. I also used to dance a lot when I was younger. All around I am very creative and artsy and musical. I was thinking of using the "music" sign, but with a "C" hand as my name short form. For those people who are very familiar with ASL: would this be an OK sign? If not, what would be more appropriate? Suggestions?"


Some of the responses she received are excerpted below:

"Sorry, You Cannot Give Yourself A Sign Name. I understand what you are trying to do, as it would simplify things, but a Sign Name can only be given to you by someone who is Deaf, or Hard of Hearing (i.e. someone from the deaf community). The more that you are around the "deaf community", the sooner that someone will pick up something unique about you, and that will become your Sign Name. It might have something to do with the things that you mentioned, or you could get something altogether different.

"I will give you an example. The woman that i was dating was hard of hearing, and she had a deaf sister, and her parents were deaf. My girlfriend had a son who was about 2 or 3 when I started dating her. Since I almost always wear suspenders on my pants, he used to get a big kick out of sneaking up on me (at least he thought he was sneaking up on me), then grabbing the suspenders, and pulling them and then letting the suspenders snap back, and "supposedly" hurting me, lol.

I would pretend to be hurt, and he would giggle like crazy. Eventually, My Sign Name became associated with him snapping my suspenders. My sign name is now shown as me putting my thumbs behind pretend braces, and then letting the pretend braces snap back. If someone in the deaf community wants to say something about me, they indicate this sign, and most people will know that it is referring to me.

Then instead of having to fingerspell my name, they simply use my sign name.

"If it is someone new in the deaf community that I am meeting, then I introduce myself, I would fingerspell my name, and then I would show them my "suspenders" sign name. After that, part of the introduction in deaf culture, is to explain your background as to how you came to be involved in the deaf community. For the deaf person, they would generally tell people about the residential school they attended (if they did attend one), the would talk about family, or common friends, this is all part of the introduction within the deaf community.

If you are dealing with kids, then it won't take long before you get a sign name, but it might be for a trait that will not be flattering, kids will generally pick up on something, and give you a sign name, that might have a "teasing or joke" aspect to it, but of course, if that is the case, then so be it. You will have been accepted."

"My mother signs for her local church and knows a few HOH and knows people who are deaf as well. Her ASL name that was given to her (im too much a newbie to have one myself) was "giggle" this name fits her very well. You can always see her laughing and smiling and always out to make people laugh and smile. I think it was the best thing to name her."

"...You can't pick your own name. Get to know some Deaf people and mention to them that you would like to have a sign name. Then, let it go. Don't expect an answer right away, they may tell you that they want to get to know you better before they give you a sign name.

"There are several reasons for not choosing your own name. One of them is to avoid choosing a sign that already has meaning. The sign that you described I have seen used for both choir and concert.

"It may be that the kids give you a sign name. It may be, as a few people that I have known have more than one sign name in your lifetime due to circumstances, living in different places, changing jobs, or other reasons."

"My sign name was given to me by my students and their original teacher. It is an L shaken near my right ear. No big significance to it. Teacher veto the kids first one for me as it was the sign for lazy. And no I am not lazy.

"Funny thing is another teacher came into class with the same sign name and hers was changed since the kids already knew me. Hers is now an L going from her right ear to her shoulder."

"Hi. My name also starts with a 'C' so when I was trying to pick my name sign then I thought of characteristics about my self. I have long straight hair so I made my name sign a with 'C' dragging straight down along the side of my head. Now my sister used to have very curly hair so because her name is Stephanie she used an 'S' in a rotating twist next to her head. Just a suggestion."

"In the Deaf community a Name Sign is a gift - it's something that is given to you , not something you pick for yourself. Not all people have name signs, even people who have lived in the Deaf community their whole life (if your name is easy to fingerspell, like Pat , or has unique abbreviation etc.

It's also important for a member of the community to pick your name since they will know what is 'available' 2 people cannot share a name sign -- and it is not a given that your name sign will (like your first English name) be the same for your lifetime.

"I agree -- mention it to someone in the community that you're close with, and then let it drop -- it's usually not something that you can make up 'on the spot', unless of course you already have one, and just don't know"

"When I first heard this (in my ASL class!), it did make thing I compared it to when explaining this idea to my mother (from Oklahoma) was like getting a Native American Indian name....if you are not born into the community, it is rare, but it does happen...and it is a gift given by members of that community, and the name is often quite descriptive of the recipient, in the language of the people bestowing it...."

"Hi, I agree with most of what everyone is saying about the name sign, although, when you are working with small children, I think you need to find a name sooner than later, and most teachers will give you one, for in the room. The kids that age I don't think understand the whole aspect of choosing a name sign for you. A good friend who is deaf will help you find one for yourself. Good luck with the working with the kids, It is so exciting to work with them!!"

"To the best of my knowledge, I believe that it is customary for Deaf people to give name signs to hearing people. I suggest that you go to Deaf/ASL events in your area. After you make a few Deaf friends, they will give you a name sign that will suit your personality. Since it's their language, it up to them to come up with new signs.

"You're also right, if you make one for yourself, it may already have another meaning. But this is common for name signs.

There can be one name sign and several people use it. For example, I've met three different women with the name "Rose", and all their sign names were the same, a combination of an "R" handshape and the sign for the flower "rose".

"I'm Vicki and my name sign is "V" in wavy movement near my hair because I have long wavy hair. Hang in there, you will have a great name sign soon."

"All I can tell you is that there is no correct way to sign your name. The way I sign mine is an M followed by the sign for singer. There's really no correct or incorrect way to sign your way. But I can tell you that you should go ahead and sign your name this way."


"Normally, the name sign is GIVEN to you by a Deaf person. If you are required to choose one for a class you are in, try using your first initial, and placing it in an area that is used by a descriptive sign.....for example mine is an "L" to the right of the chin, where "mama" would be signed.

"A name sign is really so that you can be referred to in a conversation without constantly spelling your name. It is highly unlikely that you will figure one out that many other people don't use, so don't stress about it."

"Culturally, Deaf people are the only people who should make up any sign. It doesn't matter if it is a name sign or any other sign. We hearings are not natives to this language and should not take it upon ourselves to create any new words even if it is our own name. Culturally, Deaf people are the only ones who should give you your name sign. Mine was given to me by friends up at NTID. If you wait and get to know a Deaf person, then it will feel more special having your name sign come from someone who is a native speaker. Being an interpreter, I was taught about the importance of NOT crossing cultural lines in the Deaf community."

"It really saddens me to see things like, 'you can't give a sign name to yourself.' Not everyone thinks this way and I am told it is more of a tradition than a "law." Some feel it is like saying only someone else can give you a nickname. If that was the case, my friend Christopher would always be that, Christopher, because his friends don't call him anything but that. What if he just wanted to be Chris? In other languages, there are sometimes different pronunciations of the name you have...however, in sign language, it is "necessary" to find a sign to symbolize your name.

"Perhaps the deaf community I have been exposed to is different than the ones you all are around, but it is not a common belief that someone else *must* give a's more just a tradition...almost an initiation, into the community. There are some who have studied the language, but do not have the day-to-day contact with deaf people that other deaf-impaired (aka hearing) do. I live in a completely deaf-impaired family unit, but wish to teach my son sign language because in the past I have had deaf friends and co-workers. I cannot wait until another deaf person comes into my life to give him a name so we don't have to fingerspell his name. Yes, one friend, when I was younger, did give me a sign name, but how does that help my son?

"Yes, some will point out that the name is given and it is an honor, much like what someone mentioned, a Native name. However, there are some traditions, such as my spiritual tradition, in which you have several names. A given name (legal), a childhood name (one which is given in ceremony), an adolescent name (one that is chosen by the person to represent self), and a plethora of other names that one can obtain through life. Not to mention, nicknames or shortened names. A sign name is another representation of yourself. Although I think that being given a sign name is a wonderful thing, sometimes the opportunity to receive one is not always available. Some people are outside the deaf community, but utilize sign language within their family unit, even if all are deaf-impaired."

"What is so sacred about making up a short way to sign one's name? ALL cultures have rude or insulting behaviors that should be eradicated, assuming that we DO all want to get along....Purity is fine, but can we not ALL exercise a bit of flexibility?..and then, if one desires, go back to purity..The letter from the NTID interpreter made me sad.."careful not to cross the lines of deaf culture." Is making someone feel welcome not cool in ALL cultures? If we deaf-impaired aren't wanted, why don't we just "get out of Dodge," as they say???"
-About Visitor

"I just use animal signs. It's a great idea for animal lovers to make their sign names out of it. For instance, I love cats so I use my sign name as a "K" to sign "cat's whiskers" on my cheek."

"The idea that you can not give yourself a sign name because it is a "gift" from the deaf community is ridiculous! Of course you can. If there is someone who would like to 'give' you one, great, but if not, that's OK. And don't feel that you have to stick with it your whole life. As someone else said, sign names do change, for a variety of reasons. It is a good idea to ask around to make sure you are not duplicating a commonly used sign, but hey, if that happens, it's not the end of the world. And it can always be changed! Be sure to spell your name the first time you are introduced. By the way, yes, I was given my name sign by a deaf friend (deaf, not DEAF), but I often give name signs or encourage people to make up their own so that my deaf child can identify them."

"Actually, both of my name signs came from animal-signs. My first name-sign was given to me from some deaf children in a school in Mexico, when I gave them some My Little Ponys. They combined the signs "R" and horse. My second name sign was given to me recently by a classroom of deaf children I work with. I kept talking about my birds, so they combined "R" and the sign for bird."

"When my daughter was born she would smile all the time and she was as sweet as can be. My mom and dad and almost half my family are deaf. So they were trying to find a sign name for her. They used the sign for J and rubbed the pinky finger by the cheek. As if she would smile."

Do you stop an American from giving their child a French name? Of course not!"

"There is absolutely no reason why you cant give yourself a temporary sign name. Who's gonna stop you, and for that matter, if you don't have a "deaf given" sign name it's probably because you don't know any deaf that well so who are you gonna offend? Call yourself whatever you want until you get a deaf given sign name, you're not breaking any rules. I am a third season asl student and gave myself a sign name at the beginning of my class (my English name is Melissa and I am a mother so I sign an m on my chin for Melissa/mother). I have introduced myself to some deaf people with this name and told them I picked it, but am waiting for a replacement, and they all have seemed fine with this."

"I'm in the camp that you should wait until a sign name is given to you from a d/Deaf person. Fortunately for me my name is only four letters so it's short enough to be fingerspelled easily. With that I didn't have an issue until I was given a sign name. How did get my sign name? I was dating a hard of hearing girl and she gave me one that was a combination of GULLIBLE

and the first letter of my name 'A'. That would be an 'A handshape,' palm-away, back of hand against the forehead, nod fist up and down as in 'yes'."
- Visitor

"I'm the only one in my family who's deaf, and in elementary school, my sign name was a K over the heart. That's like the default sign name around here, just the first letter of your name. So in 6th grade, I gave myself a new sign. My mom was dating a guy who was interested in sign language, so he gave her a sign: the sign for beautiful with a K. My mom gave my sister hers: the sign for talk with E. So, I think you have to be part of the deaf community to give a name to make a name for yourself. If someone in the deaf community gives you a sign name it's an honor."
- Visitor

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