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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 clear 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 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" (1993, page 575).

We see this demonstrated in the classic ASL idiom example of:  "TRAIN-GONE" -- which generally means "no, I'm not going to repeat what I said."  "TRAIN-GONE" 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 to readers of this information: 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.]

Idiom: TRAIN GONE = missed opportunity to know what is being talked about

Idiom: 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.

Idiom: TOUCH-FINISH or FINISH-TOUCH = been there, have physically been to a place.
Note:  FINISH-TOUCH vs TOUCH FINISH:  Some people may wish to argue that one or the other is "right."  Do not play that game.  Both show up on the hands of skilled Deaf signers.  For example, Lisa Cochran specifically teaches about the sign "TOUCH FINISH" but then during her examples when she is signing a bit more naturally she uses the FINISH-TOUCH version of the sign.  You can see this at the 4:31 mark of
Source: Cochran, Lisa (May 12, 2020) "Stories From Home - Deaf Idioms" Statewide Outreach Center Videos, retrieved 1/6/2022 from (the 4:31 mark).

Idiom: 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."

Idiom: BASEMENT = Stayed home, didn't go out. This idiom appears to be regional and now archaic (late 1980s).

Idiom: "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.

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

Idiom: 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.

Idiom: 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.

Idiom: 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."

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

Idiom: 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."

Idiom: 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).


Idiom: BIRD-PLUCK-(thought-from)-HEAD / BIRD-PICK-HEAD (Sign "BIRD" then use a G > closed-G to show a thought being plucked from you mind. You can also use an open-F to regular F)  Meaning?  You had a thought or idea and it is now gone as if plucked from your head.  (Source: Briana Garry in the Lifeprint-ASLU FB group).

Idiom: BARE-MY-SOUL, open-shirt, disclose, divulge, I've nothing to hide, be open about:  This sign looks as if you are flashing someone or opening your shirt.

Idiom: DEADLINE -- this sign is done by using an index finger to "slit one's throat."  This sign can be used to refer to a deadline.

Idiom: HEAD-SLICE-OFF  "I'm soooo done with this!" "I've had it!" "I'm out!"    This sign also conveys a sense of "I've had it up to here with...[something]!"  Not going to do this any more!  This concept is signed by using BENT-hand handshapes to "slice off" one's head.

Idiom: FIRED, excommunicated: Depicting the concept of chopping off one's head as a way to fire them from employment.

Idiom: BOOT a computer.  Using the sign KICK to refer to starting up an operating system on a computer If taken literally it would mean to kick your computer. This is an interesting example of an ASL idiom that has been directly borrowed from an English idiom.
See: McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms:
boot up. (n.d.) McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. (2002).
boot up. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. (2003, 1997).

Idiom: I-I-I:  The "I-I-I" sign can be used to mean arrogant, self-centered, or "that person things it is all about themself."  This is a fascinating sign because it is a direct borrowing of the Signed English sign "I" and is then further modified by repetition and alternating the hand. It is idiomatic not because of the word or sign "I" -- but rather because the combination of the Signed English being borrowed into ASL and then repeated changes the meaning of the sign so significantly that even though it is easy to make the connection once it is explained to you -- most new learners of the language "do" need it explained to them.  Ask yourself, if, for some reason, a fluent signer of ASL (somehow) didn't know the I-I-I sign and was shown the sign without mouth movement and without context -- would that signer be likely to understand the meaning of the sign.  The answer is "quite possibly."  If the fluent signer could look at it and guess the meaning then the sign is arguably "not" idiomatic to that individual signer but could indeed be considered idiomatic to a beginning ASL signer who is learning sign as a second language coming from a first language such as Japanese Sign Language (thus the Signed English  letter "I" handshape would contribute to the sign seeming idiomatic).

Idiom: I-(extended) This sign is another play on the Signed English sign "I" in which the dominant hand forms an "I" on the chest and the non-dominant "C" hand depicts the pinkie of the dominant hand as extending far up and out. This sign means egotistic or arrogant.

Idiom: COKE-(Coca-Cola)-(injection) This sign is idiomatic in that you sign "give a shot in the bicep" to mean the soft-drink / soda named Coca-Cola.  You sign one thing but mean another -- thus it is idiomatic.

Idiom: FINISH!-(one-handed-version: "knock it off") The one handed version of FINISH when done strongly with an accompanying facial expression can mean "knock it off" as in "quit bothering me" or "stop doing that annoying behavior."  Many years ago while volunteering at the Indiana School for the Deaf -- I noticed a 3rd grade boy clumsily attempting to interact with a 3rd grade girl who turned to face the boy directly and sternly signed "FINISH BOTHER ME!" to create the meaning of "stop being annoying / knock it off / cut it out."

Idiom: IN-EAR-OUT-EAR:  Having received advice or information but it has no meaning for the person or the person chooses to not act on or benefit from the information. To disregard instruction, a warning, or information.

Idiom: IN-EYE-OUT-EYE:  Not understand something.  Not pay attention to something.  Not have the intellectual capacity to benefit from presented information. Information received that "goes over one's head" due to being beyond their ability to understand or make sense of.  Note: this sign has a few forms:
a. Touch just below the eyes with the tips of your index fingers and then pull forward into closed X hands and then use a flicking movement to change back into index fingers as you move the hands to the sides of the head pointing to behind you.
b. A citation form that does a jab toward the eyes and then retraces a bit and goes around the head. 
c. An advanced form that quickly moves index fingers towards and past the eyes.

Idiom: EGO, big-headed, arrogant, pompous, or conceited.  While this sign "can indeed" refer to having a large head (as in discussing hat sizes or the birth of a large-headed baby) -- often this sign is used idiomatically to refer to someone who is egotistical or arrogant.

Idiom: BOILING-inside, BURNING-inside, stewing, seething, getting angry, boiling mad

Idiom: POP-CORK, VOLCANO-erupt: to suddenly demonstrate that you are very mad

Idiom: BLOW-OFF-LID = lose one's temper.

Idiom: TONGUE-flapping-in-mouth:  Uses a non-dominant C hand and a dominant FLAT hand (like a B-hand but the thumb is alongside the palm). The dominant hand flaps up and down inside the C-hand as if representing a tongue going up and down in a mouth. This sign is rather derogatory in the Deaf world as it generally refers to someone who talks too much or engages in non-appreciated voicing. It is somewhat similar to the English idiom "flappin' your gums."

Idiom: TRUE-BIZ, true-business: The sign TRUE combined with one of the various signs for WORK or a non-initialized version of one of the signs for business.  This sign can be used to mean concepts like: authentic, for sure, indeed, actual. It can also be used as a response to show that you agree with the information that someone else has just shared.   In the 1980's this sign tended to be initialized.  Over time the initialization was dropped.

Idiom: MICROWAVE-(pinkie-version)  This sign uses the pinkie finger to wave via a flexing movement of the middle and small knuckles. The pinkie finger is associated with smallness.  Smallness can be associated with the word "micro" in English.  That term "micro" plus the "waving" of the pinkie can be combined to form the idea of a "microwave."

Idiom: CUT-OFF-HANDS / CUT-WRISTS: This sign uses a scissors hand (V-hand) to mock cut off a hand or hands. It is an amusing way of indicating that "Well, I'll shut up now!"  or "I'm going to stop discussing this or chatting."  If you have no hands you obviously can't keep signing.

Special idiom category: Number-based idioms

258-(idiom)  Handshape-mapping: TWO-FIVE-EIGHT: "very interesting."  The handshapes 2, 5, and 8 correspond to the handshapes in the signs "VERY" and "INTERESTING." Specifically, 2 corresponds to "V."  *5" and "8" correspond to a version of the sign INTERESTING.

10+258-(idiom) Handshape-mapping: TEN-TWO-FIVE-EIGHT: "not very interesting."  The handshapes used in the numbers 10, 2, 5, and 8 correspond to the handshapes in the signs "NOT," "VERY," and "INTERESTING." Specifically, 10 corresponds to the sign NOT, 2 corresponds to "V."  *5" and "8" correspond to a version of the sign INTERESTING.

85!-(idiom) This is an idiom that is idiomatic when expressed via text.  It is a gloss-based idiom. Often ASL signs are described in gloss by labeling the handshapes used in the sign. The handshapes used for signs like terrible, hate, awful, etc. is an 8 followed by a 5.  Typing 85 means one thing without in-group knowledge.  It means something different when used in context by those who are familiar with the idiom.


Question:  Ask yourself:
Is it an ASL idiom or is it simply using (or rather "misusing") the ASL sign associated with the gloss of an English idiom?

Bilingual Idioms:

Idiom: HOTDOG DRY:  Consider the (so called) ASL idiom of "HOTDOG DRY" or the English interpretation that means "dry hotdog."
This idiom is actually a type of look-a-like idiom based on the sign DISCUSS (which looks somewhat like a version of the sign HOTDOG) and the sign DULL (which, can sometimes be interpreted into English as meaning "dry").  The signs DISCUSS DULL (as in I'm bored with this discussion) is not an idiom.  An idiom comes into existence when bilingual people (which many Deaf are) attach the English words "hotdog" and "dry" to the ASL signs DISCUSSION DULL.

Debatable idioms:
Sometimes a sign or a signed phrase seems to be idiomatic but really isn't. 

Sometimes a signed phrase is idiomatic to Hearing people if translated directly to English but the same phrase is not idiomatic in ASL.

Sometimes a sign or signed phrase has become "concentrated" and packs a lot of meaning into a single sign -- that doesn't mean it is idiomatic-- it just means it is a sign full of concentrated meaning that logically (not idiomatically) matches the sign.

Sometimes people call a sign that is hard to interpret into English an idiom when it is simply a sign that requires multiple English words (or a rarely used English word) to interpret the sign into English. 

Sometimes people call signs with obscure origins idioms.  Not knowing where a sign comes from doesn't make it idiomatic. It just means you don't know why we sign it that way.  For example the sign CHEAT that twists a "K" on the side of the nose. Just because you don't know why it is signed that way or what it may have evolved from -- doesn't mean the sign is idiomatic.  It is simply a sign with a past that is obscure to you.

Often people call signed metaphors or metaphorical signs "idioms" when the signs are not actually idioms -- they are just figurative language, puns, similes, or metaphors. Since many people don't know the differences between those concepts those people lump metaphors and idioms together.

According to some (but not all) definitions of the word idiom -- idioms are supposed to consist of "more than one word." The necessity of having two or more words or signs to qualify as an idiom is debatable but even if we accept that (so called) rule -- 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.

Sign: HEARING SCHOOL =  "public school"  The sign HEARING-SCHOOL is an idiom to Hearing people who don't understand ASL but it makes perfect sense to culturally Deaf people as meaning a school full of spoken words tumbling from the mouth.  If a saying or a phrase makes perfect sense it is by definition not an idiom.  Thus I would suggest that the sign HEARING-SCHOOL is idiomatic to Hearing people who are exposed to the term in its written form or from an Interpreter who when upon seeing the sign chooses to voice the main (but not the only) gloss label of the sign (HEARING) instead of doing their job and voicing "public school."

Sign: 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.

Sign: VOMIT:  Some people may consider "VOMIT" to be an idiom.  I consider it to simply be an abbreviated way of stating "that makes me want to barf." This is not idiomatic it is simply effective signing. If someone unfamiliar with the culture of ASL were to see you sign VOMIT they would very like you understand you without further explanation. Thus this sign is not idiomatic.

Sign: FUNNY-NONE: Some people may consider FUNNY NONE to be an idiom however its meaning is exactly what you would expect:  That isn't funny / that is no laughing matter / that should not be laughed at!

Sign: FINE-(wiggle_version)  This sign generally means something is fashionably attractive, excellent, or impressive. Whether or not this sign is an idiom is debatable.  The meaning of this sign is within the spectrum of meaning of the concept of something being "fine."  The wiggling of the fingers helps emphasize the meaning.  This sign doesn't create a meaning that would cause you to scratch your head and think, "Huh?"  The sign FINE-(wiggle) is not in the same category as a true idiom such as TRAIN-GONE which is far removed from its actual meaning.

Sign: SICK-in-the-head, perverted, mentally twisted:  The meaning of the SICK-in-the-head sign seems to extend logically (not idiomatically) from the SICK sign.  There are those who call it an idiom because it has a meaning that is beyond the meaning of SICK -- but I would argue that the meaning simply extends from or is an easily understood use of the SICK sign to inform someone that they must be sick in the head if they think that is funny or they must be sick in the head to suggest what they did. 

Sign: ORANGE-THROAT Ask yourself -- is this an ASL idiom or is it only idiomatic if you voice or type the English word "orange?" I would suggest to you that the gloss or label ORANGE-THROAT is idiomatic but the sign itself makes perfect sense in that it logically depicts the feeling in your throat when you are experiencing distress or embarrassment at having failed or having been humiliated. Realistically if we simply glossed this sign as CHAGRIN it wouldn't be considered an idiom -- it would simply be considered a depictive sign that obviously evolved from showing esophageal constriction (tightening of the throat) that later fossilized into a standard, easily understood sign that is easily interpreted by skilled interpreters in high-context settings.

Sign: POINT-THROUGH, "get it through your skull":  The sign POINT-THROUGH forcibly pokes an dominant hand  index finger through the middle and ring fingers of the non-dominant flat hand. This is often used to mean "get it through your thick skull!"  This sign is certainly figurative and metaphorical in that it depicts a thought piercing someone's skull and going into their brain. Does being figurative and metaphorical equal idiomatic?  Not necessarily. You could state that, "Well if you took the signs literally then the sign would be idiomatic!"  Sure. You could do that -- but if you simply saw the signs as a logically constructed metaphor representing a thought forcibly entering someone's brain then it isn't idiomatic even though it is figurative and metaphorical.

Sign: COW-(taking-a-long-time), COW-it:  If you think of this sign as being a derivative of the sign for COW -- then sure, it seems idiomatic. However if you think of this sign as being a derivative of the letter "Y" in "eternity" and trace the sign back to its likely roots as an evolved  version of "eternity" then this sign isn't an idiom but rather it is a modified derivative sign based on eternity.  This evolution is helped along by overlap with the signs for STAY and STILL.  The location of the sign (at the side of the forehead) is likely based on the overlap between FOREVER and FOR.

Sign: THINK-GONE, THINK-DISAPPEAR:  This is a depictive / iconic metaphor but the individual parts of the sign make perfect sense and are not idiomatic.

Sign:  SEE-YOU-TOMORROW:  A modified 3-hand can be used as a joke sign for "See you tomorrow" by straddling the nose with the index and middle while grazing the cheek with the thumb (as if combining the signs SEE and TOMORROW.  This is absolutely not a serious sign. It is a Joke.

Sign:  STUCK: "unwanted pregnancy" and/or "unplanned pregnancy." 

Idiom: UNDERSTAND / STAND-UNDER:  This sign does and upside-down version of the sign for STAND.

Idiom: MISUNDERSTAND / MISS-STAND-UNDER:  This sign is introduced immediately after doing the STAND-UNDER sign.  Instead of making contact with the palm-down-flat-non-dominant hand the dominant V "misses" the palm two or three times. 

Special category idioms: Sound-alike idioms:

EX+SHOE+ME-(idiom) Sound alike idiom that means "excuse me"

PAST-YOUR-EYES MILK-(idiom) Sound alike idiom that means "pasteurized milk"

WASH+ING+TON-(idiom) Sound alike idiom that means "Washington"

LETTUCE+PRAY-(idiom) Sound alike idiom that means "Let us pray."

MANY+APPLES-(idiom) Sound alike idiom that means "Minneapolis"

MANY+SODA-(idiom) Sound alike idiom that means "Minnesota"

HOLLYWOOD-(idiom that has evolved into a standard sign)  This is a partial sound-alike: The sign HOLLYWOOD is partially idiomatic due to it likely having evolved from the sign for HOLIDAY. Most ASL signers simply recognize the sign HOLLYWOOD when used in context.  However, someone unfamiliar with the language might wonder why someone is signing HOLIDAY to mean "HOLLYWOOD."  You could argue that this sign is an idiom because you are signing one thing (holiday) and using it to mean something else (Hollywood).  This sign is a partial "sound-alike."  (See NECK-NAME-(nickname)

NECK-NAME-(nickname)-(idiom) This sign is a "sound-alike" type idiom / pun.  It is a pun because it is a play on words. It is idiomatic  because you are signing one thing but meaning something else.

SHAKE-SPEAR-(idiom) sound-alike for Shakespeare.

OIC-(fs)-(idiom) sound-alike for "Oh, I see!"  (Compare:  OH-I-SEE).

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 non-manual signals (NMS's) or non-manual markers (NMM'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."  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 Language. 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.



Signplay or "Sign Play":

Natural movements that can be confused with signing:  PEACH:  One day while walking the dog with my wife -- her hair was poking out from her cap and hanging down onto her cheek.  She kept reaching to her cheek attempting to grab a few strands of hair that were eluding her.  I looked at her and started signing and mouthing "Peach, peach, peach, I get it you like peaches!" (PEACH, PEACH, PEACH -- I UNDERSTAND! YOU LIKE PEACH!).

grammatically: definition: gram·mat·i·cal·ly
in a way that relates to grammar or the rules of grammar.
"the conversation will be grammatically analyzed"
in accordance with the rules of the grammar of a language.
"I can speak clearly and grammatically"



ILY: I love you back:  My wife signed ILY to me.  I held up a palm-back-ILY hand and pointed out to her that I was showing her the back side of it and thus I was signing "I love you back."

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