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
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
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
Idiom: TRAIN GONE = missed opportunity to know what is being talked
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 https://youtu.be/1udjpRATPoQ
Source: Cochran, Lisa (May 12, 2020) "Stories From Home - Deaf Idioms"
Statewide Outreach Center Videos, retrieved 1/6/2022 from https://youtu.be/1udjpRATPoQ?t=271
(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
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
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
More notes: See 2:33 of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCuNYGk3oj8
At about 2:33 "NOT NORMAL ANY MORE. THAT _____ I BECAME HEARING."
Also, this sign could be considered a fossilized classifier
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.
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
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
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
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.
A citation form that does a jab toward the eyes and then retraces a bit
and goes around the head.
An advanced form that quickly moves index fingers towards and past the
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
Idiom: BLOW-OFF-LID = lose one's temper.
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
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.
Idiom: 258: 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
Idiom: 10-258: 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
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?
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.
Sometimes a sign or a signed phrase seems to be idiomatic but really
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
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
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
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
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-alikes:
Idiom: HOLLYWOOD: This is a 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 what I'd term a
"sound-alike." (See NECK-NAME-(nickname)
Idiom: NECK-NAME-(nickname) 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. (See:
Idiom: SHAKE-SPEAR: sound-alike for Shakespeare.
Idiom: OIC: sound-alike for "Oh, I see!" (Compare:
"To put your
foot in your mouth," "in over your head," "have a heart," "up a creek
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
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.
is an introduction of the idiom, followed by examples of its proper use.
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
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
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.
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