Name signs for those who use American Sign Language

Our reader Amy is deaf, and was recently sharing with me how name signs are bestowed, which I thought you’d all find as interesting as I do:

In regards to naming practices for people who use American Sign Language*:

Culturally, a name sign should only be given to you by a Deaf person (you can’t just make up your own) and they are also not always bestowed right away. Sometimes it can takes months or longer while you wait for the right one to come along. Until then, names are typically just finger spelled. Sometimes short names (2 or 3 letters) are only finger spelled and that motion becomes their sign. But for the most part name signs are given based on a characteristic unique that person. Like Callie might walk with a specific sway in her hips, so hers might be a C hand shape near her hip that rocks back and forth. Rachel might be a person that is always happy and smiling so the sign for smile is done with the handshape for the letter R instead of the regular hand shape. Gavin might be a G on his upper arm because he is strong.

The first initial is not always used. I know an Anna who had chubby cheeks as a baby so her name sign is a finger flick on her cheek. Caleb might be a claw hand shape, finger tips almost tapping his chin. My co-worker Jill’s sign name is the same as the sign for flower because it relates to her maiden name. I have a friend who didn’t “name” her son until he was almost one, and then he was “named” after an eyebrow raise he would always do. The hand shape/movement mimics it.

In my own family we use the letters MK for my son Martin Kane, as a way of including his formal first name, even though we call him Kane. Also because we already use a K hand shape for my daughter Kristy (palm facing in, rising up from her ear because she would always make high squeaky sounds and she is hearing). My name (Amy) is just finger spelled, My husband Marty’s is an M making an arch down like the sign for kung fu because he is a black sash, an instructor and it’s where we met. Sometimes just generic signs are used. A good example of this might be when reading a story book. Instead of spelling the characters names over and over again or coming up with a characteristic name sign, you could just simply shake the first letter in the air or tap it on your jaw if the character is female, or on your temple if they are male (because this is where female/male signs are made). Fun stuff huh! Although, working in a deaf school, sometimes it gets confusing when students have the same name sign or ones very similar. But then again, regular school kids have this same problem. Common top 10 names usually end up going by their first name plus their last name initial. Emily C. or Emily K.?

*some names in this post have been changed to protect privacy

So interesting, right? I always wondered how people got their name signs! I took Sign Language classes for years before and during college, which were taught by a hearing interpreter, so she knew a lot but she wasn’t deaf (I don’t know how much “insider” cultural info she had) and I didn’t know to ask about this (we all finger spelled our names) — this is all new to me!

I also really like how the name signs are tied to a characteristic that is particular to each individual, and how it “Sometimes it can takes months or longer while you wait for the right one to come along. ” It feels really affectionate to me because it requires observation of the person — you have to really *know* him or her.

Amy also told me, which I hadn’t known, that St. Francis de Sales is the patron of the deaf — such a cool thing to know! I love him! (He’s also a patron of writers, and I’ve long asked him for intercession for my writing efforts.) I looked him up, just to see if I could find an explanation for this particular patronage, and found this amazing tidbit:

His simple, clear explanations of Catholic doctrine, and his gentle way with everyone, brought many back to the Roman Church. He even used sign language in order to bring the message to the deaf, leading to his patronage of deaf people.” ❤

Do any of you know anyone with a name sign, and if so, what is it/how did they get it?

Thanks to Amy for writing this up for us!!


19 thoughts on “Name signs for those who use American Sign Language

  1. My daughter’s name sign is an “E” (the first letter of her name) that is made while being tapped against a forehead. It mimics the way my daughter would bash her head very dramatically as a toddler when she made a mistake. A relative named her after seeing her do this a couple of times when she was trying to build a tower and the blocks kept falling down.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was so interesting!!

    The nice thing about having a word name is, when I was working with deaf children and non-verbal children who used sign language, I didn’t need a name sign. We mostly just used the sign for the word “grace” instead.

    My signing is unfortunately very very weak now, because I haven’t used it since elementary school when I was working with the different children (I feel a little weird calling them children still, because when I was working with them, I was their age). I learned sign language so I could speak with them, and picked up on it really pretty fast (the joy of learning a language when you’re young), and I’m sure if I actually had time I could pick up on it again. I do love sign language.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this! I don’t have any personal experience with anyone who is deaf, so I was unaware of this whole concept of a name sign. So interesting; I love learning something new! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very interesting! Thanks for expanding our world of naming once again. It reminds me of all those Gaelic and English names that relate to one’s physical characteristics ….and it also makes me think of Navy pilots and how they get their call signs!

    Liked by 2 people

      • The military aviation communities are tight knit and full of traditions. Military aviators of all branches earn call signs or nicknames in their careers- they are called by this call sign and it is on their uniform and aircraft. They are always given by members of the squadron (not the aviator him or herself)- to choose your own call sign is considered “bad form.” The call sign is derived from your last name sometimes but usually is given according to some habit you have or most often from something embarrassing you did! The more you complain about your derogatory call sign the more likely it is to stick.
        You can see lots of examples in the movie Top Gun- where Tom Cruise’s call sign is Maverick and his flight officer’s call sign, played by Anthony Edwards, is Goose. Usually you have just one call sign in your career but if something significant happens to you especially in battle, it can change.

        Liked by 1 person

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