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Idioms and ASL:
Also see: 2 | 3 | Idioms or not?

For idiom examples, see:

Updated 10/10/2016:
In a message dated 6/30/2005 11:53:40 PM Pacific Daylight Time, writes:
Dr. Bill,

In an ASL/English bilingual training today, a trainer said that ASL only has FOUR true idiomatic expressions.  Surely ASL has more than four idioms!  The trainer explained that some things we call idioms may not necessarily be idioms. They could be metaphors, simply figurative language, or an ASL interpretation of an English idiom.

I'd love to hear your thought on this!

Indeed once we analyze many signed phrases that some people commonly call "idioms" we do find that those phrases are not idioms and instead are something else. However, if we delve into the definition of the term "idiom" and use that definition to "screen" the whole of ASL phraseology we certainly find more than just "four" ASL idioms. 

The trick is getting people to agree on what is an "idiom" and prevent people from pooh poohing your idiom examples and calling them metaphors or "metaphorical use of language."

Thus we must establish firm definitions (rules) if we are going to play the game:

The definition of a "metaphor" according to is:
1.  A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world's a stage” (Shakespeare).

2.  One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol: “Hollywood has always been an irresistible, prefabricated metaphor for the crass, the materialistic, the shallow, and the craven” (Neal Gabler).

So then, how is a metaphor different from an idiom?

The definition of an "
According to the 1993 Merriam-Webster dictionary, an  idiom is “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements” (575).

Ah ha!  There we go.  The ASL idiom "TRAIN GONE" means "no, I'm not going to repeat what I said."  It isn't a metaphor because "the leaving of a train" is sufficiently different from the idea of "someone not repeating themselves" that you really can't make a direct connection between the two. 

To be able to understand what is meant by an idiom you have to possess "insider" knowledge. You can't just look up the meaning of the individual words in a dictionary and piece together the meaning of an idiom.

You generally can figure out a metaphor without context or insider knowledge.  It is likely that a person could figure out that the metaphor "sea of troubles" means to have a lot of problems.  But without context or insider knowledge a person would be unlikely to figure out that the idiom "kicked the bucket" means someone "He died."  You might assume that someone was mad or that he messed up -- but died? No.  So, a phrase becomes an idiom (and not just a metaphor) when the phrase's meaning moves so far from the literal interpretation that it makes no sense. 

Consider this conversation about an idiom:

Bob:  Hey John, what does the phrase "He kicked the bucket" mean?
John:  Well, Bob, it means "He died."
Bob: That doesn't make any sense. What does a bucket have to do with dying?!?
John: I don't know. It's just an idiom.

Compare that with this conversation about a metaphor:

Bob: Hey, John, what does the phrase "He passed away" mean?
John:  Well, Bob, it means "He died."
Bob: Eh, I don't get it.
John: Well, it's like you are saying his spirit has passed on to the next life.
Bob: Oh, I get it. "He passed away" is saying that dying is like "passing through a door into another realm." That is sort of poetic.
John: Yah, it is metaphorical.

In a metaphor the meaning has been abstracted but held on to.
In an idiom the meaning has been obliterated and replaced.

Here are some ASL idioms for your consideration. 
[Note: Do not copy and paste this list to some other website without permission. And then even if you get permission you need to be giving credit and a link back to Lifeprint. Don't take the list and make a few changes and call it your own. I'm working on this as an article for eventual peer reviewed publication.]

1.  TRAIN GONE = missed opportunity to know what is being talked about

2.  CIGARETTE GONE = missed opportunity to know what is being talked about.  Note, this is a clever twist on the "train gone" idiom since some people say, TRAIN BACK!  But you can't bring back a smoked cigarette.

3.  FINISH TOUCH = been there, have physically been to a place

4.  FISH = "I am done. It is over."  This is a pun / idiom based on the fact that many Deaf when doing the sign for "FINISH" make a mouth movement that looks as if they were saying the word "fish."

5. BASEMENT = Stayed home, didn't go out.

6. "BY-A-HAIR" (pull a hair) = "Whew! That was a close one!" The signer does a sign that depicts the "pulling of a single hair" but the actual meaning has nothing to do with the pulling of a single piece of hair.

7. FISH-SWALLOW = gullible.  The signer does a sign which depicts the swallowing of a fish but the actual meaning is that someone is gullible.

8. BLOW-BRAINS-OUT = Gee, oh wow, I can't believe that it (a certain piece of information) isn't coming to my mind. I know this but can't think of the right word, or information.

9.  SCRATCH-in-FOREHEAD / ETCHED-IN-MY-BRAIN / SCARRED-FOR-LIFE: This sign is based on the concept of dragging the fingernail of an "X"-handshape a few centimeters across (and-down-at-an-angle) the dominant side of your upper forehead -- as if creating a deep scratch that will create a scar and/or as if etching something into your brain. The literal meaning of "deep painful scratch on my upper forehead" is different from the idiomatic meaning of "I will never forget what I experience or learned here." Additionally this sign typically includes a negative connotation (implied meaning) that the experience was one or more of the following: bad, painful, uncomfortable, embarrassing, frightening, intense, or of some other way negative.

10. STRICT = "hard nosed" = unyielding, not flexible.  This sign is interesting because the meaning of the sign is interpreted as "strict." You see the sign and you think "strict" -- you don't think of it as being an idiom. But if you consider the likely history of the sign you can see that it is a combination of the signs "HARD" and "NOSE." The phrase, "He (or she) is hard nosed," is obviously an idiom since the literal meaning has nothing to do with having a "hard nose."

11. HERMIT: This sign is based on the "I" sign or "I am with I" (I am keeping myself company.)

12.  LIGHT-BULB-CLICK-ON:  This sign uses one hand to pull an imaginary chain downward while using the other hand to show a light turning on.  This means something to the effect of "he/she finally gets it" which in turn means "He or she understands now."

Debatable idioms:
1.  HEARING SCHOOL =  "public school"  This is somewhat of an idiom to Hearing people who don't understand ASL fully.  But it makes perfect sense to "Deafs" (Deaf people).

2. HORNY: This sign shows a single horn protruding from the head. If taken literally it would mean a person looked like a unicorn ("He/she has a horn sticking out of his/her head.")  But what it actually means is that a person is aroused.

Idioms are supposed to consist of "more than one word." So how is it that a single sign can qualify as an idiom?  I'm not saying that a single sign in isolation qualifies as an idiom. "BASEMENT" out of context doesn't qualify as an idiom, but if a signer asks, "PAST WEEKEND what-DO YOU?" and gets a reply of "BASEMENT" that reply if interpreted literally would mean "I was in the basement all weekend" -- which is obviously more than a single word but has an actual meaning of "I stayed home and didn't go anywhere" -- which has nothing to do with an actual "basement."  Similarly the single sign HORNY if literally interpreted into English would mean "has a horn sticking out of his/her/its head" -- which is obviously more than "one" word.

--Dr. Bill

13.  WHIPLASH: The whiplash sign could be interpreted as “knocked my head back” or “HEAD-KNOCKED-BACK” or perhaps even better: “WHIPLASH” – uses the fist to represent the head jerking back or being knocked back.
It is similar to the English idiom "Threw me for a loop." However it can also be used to literally mean “whiplash” as in from a car accident.
More notes: See 2:33 of:
Also, this sign could be considered a fossilized classifier (depictive sign).

In a message dated 8/27/2010 11:48:54 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, a student writes writes:
 In my ASL class the teacher gave a hand out of about 12 idiomatic uses of "FINISH" like "knock it off!" I am also fluent in Spanish and there are many idiomatic expressions in that language that really shed a light on how the people view, regard, and relate to their surroundings.  By studying those means of expression and their historical roots, I have learned a great deal about the different Hispanic cultures.  I am trying to find trying to find more ASL Idioms as another resource to better understand Deaf Culture. 
Dear (student),
Some things to consider when discussing idioms:
Is the sign an idiom or is it simply a "multiple meaning sign (MMS)."
What is the effect of diglossia on MMS's? 
Does associating the "main label" of the English gloss of an ASL concept (such as "FINISH") with the multiple meanings of an ASL concept result in an idiom?
The sign glossed as "FINISH" has multiple meanings.  One of those meanings is "knock it off."  Does it result in an idiom when we mouth the word FISH, while thinking the English word FINISH, while doing the sign for "knock it off"? The "knock it off" sign is considerably different from the "I am finished" sign. Thus it is hard to justify the idea that we are signing one thing and meaning another. 

We are signing two different things:
1.  "knock it off" (one hand, faster movement, slightly longer hold at the end, forward head tilt with a slight twist, glare, furrowed eyebrows, verb agreement/directionality, etc.)

2.  "I am finished," (two hands, slight backward head tilt/swish, slight elongation of the neck, no verb agreement/directionality, etc.)

Thus how can we say we are signing one thing and meaning another? We are actually signing two different things while using the same "English" label / gloss ("finish").
This is a "very" complex topic and one worthy of your endeavors.
Please do update me from time to time on your thinking and findings.
Dr. Bill

Lizzie Green
March 17, 2003

Idioms: Shine Some Light on the Subject

What is an idiom? According to the 1993 Merriam-Webster dictionary, an  idiom is “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements” (575).

 “To put your foot in  your mouth,” “in over your head,” “have a heart,” “up a creek without a paddle,” “shed some light on the subject”—these are all examples of idioms. “To put your foot in your mouth” does not literally mean to put your foot in your mouth. These are figurative expressions that mean something else. “To put your foot in your mouth” means to say something you probably should not have.

The teaching of idioms to deaf children has been and still is a major
problem in schools. The comprehension of idioms has been linked to the
reading ability of deaf children (Arnold & Hornett, 1990). A deaf child
unfamiliar with idioms will take an idiomatic word or phrase literally and
become confused, which impedes comprehension (Arnold & Hornett, 1990). Many
studies have been done to figure out the best way to teach idioms. Problems
arise because in the English language there are thousands of idioms and they
can be found in just about every book and heard in every conversation.

There are many interesting ways to teach idioms. The more innovative
methods can overcome the difficulties that deaf children have. One method
devised by Arnold and Hornett, 1990, is composed of five parts. The first
is an introduction of the idiom, followed by examples of its proper use. In
the third, fourth, and fifth steps, the student gives examples of the idiom,
is shown sentences about the idiom, and then answers a worksheet of yes/no
questions. Arnold and Hornett’s method stresses the concept of repetition
to provide deaf children with needed exposure to idioms.

In another study, Kenyon and Daly, 1991, found that the use of
videotaped skits on idioms improved students recall significantly. When
tested eight weeks after the study ended, students who had watched the video
taped skits scored 77% recall versus the 37% recall of the students who only
received lectures (Kenyon & Daly, 1991). Kenyon and Daly took into account
that deaf children are very visual learners and that the children would
prefer watching a video rather than the teacher. Another study by McNeill
and Harper, 1991, presented idioms by combining them with a behavior plan.
A poster of four related idioms was made and placed in plain view of the
students. One example from the study is a poster of four expressions: “top
dog,” “in the doghouse,” “in hot water,” and “dead meat.” The rules and
expressions are explained to the students by the teacher. The student
starts out as “top dog” every morning and moves down in rank when they get
into trouble. McNeill and Harper found that the students internalized the
idioms because the students had fun with them and continued to use them two
years later.

Idioms also exist in American Sign Language. There are idiomatic
derivatives of signs. In spoken languages, one word can have several
different meanings without changing the phonological aspects of the word
(Bellugi & Newkirk, 1981). In ASL, however, a shift in meaning is
accompanied by a “shift in the dimension of the movement of a sign” (21).
This shift can take place as an increase or decrease in rate or a change in
the number of repetitions (just to name a few examples). The sign for WRONG
when signed with a lax half-twist means “unexpectedly” (Bellugi & Newkirk,
1981). Other derived meanings are “unfortunately” from the sign BAD, and
“instead” from the sign DIGRESS (Bellugi & Newkirk, 1981).

ASL idioms could be used to teach English idioms to students. ASL
idioms, by example, would help deaf children to understand English idioms
better. The main reason that teachers are not using ASL idioms is because
many of them do not know that they exist. Thus, there is a definite need for
research of idioms in ASL.

Arnold, K. M. & Hornett, D. (1990). Teaching idioms to children who are
deaf. Teaching Exceptional Children, 22 (4), 14-17.

Bellugi, U. & Newkirk, D. (1981). Formal devices for creating new signs in
american sign languages. Sign Language Studies, 30, 1-35.

Kenyon, P. & Daly, K. (1991). Teaching idioms: Video or lecture.
Perspectives in Education and Deafness, 9 (3), 12-14.

Mcneill, J. H. & Harper, J. P. (1991). Idioms: Wise as an owl and good as
gold. Perspectives in Education and Deafness, 9 (5), 2-3, 11.

Merriam-Webster, Inc. (1993). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10
ed. Springfield, MA.




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