Emily Howlett: Hearing people have invisible sign names

Posted on May 4, 2012

Sign names.

Tricky little blighters, aren’t they? It’s all well and good if your given sign name is something delicious and intriguing; ‘cute’, ‘flower’, ‘eye candy’, or ‘muscles’ for example. It’s also fine and dandy when your sign name captures a pretty unique part of your personality; such as ‘sausage’, ‘sunshine’, ‘dinosaur’, ‘why’, ‘dreamer’…

All of the above are sign names given to friends of mine, and they’re all perfectly happy with them. As we all know, you don’t choose your sign name; you wait to be given it. Oh, you can try and choose one for yourself, a lovely, flattering illustration of the finer points of your character, but chances are it’ll be swept aside by something one of your Deafie friends decides is ‘much more you’. Like ‘boobies’ or ‘dribble’, or ‘peanut’.

My own sign name is a peculiar one, having evolved into various mutations of the original ‘wolf’ hand shape, currently somewhere between ‘fox’, ‘roulette’ and ‘orange’ depending on who you ask. Which is always tricky to explain, but at least it breaks the ice.

Our very own editor, Charlie, has previously discussed the minefield that is sign names, and I’m quite sure there have been many, many conversations, debates and outright arguments about them over the years. So, why am I revisiting old ground? Well, I don’t mean to, but it got me thinking; do hearing people have invisible sign names?

The general point of a sign name is to make it easier and quicker to refer to someone in a signed conversation. Hearing people don’t need them; they can just say the person’s name. But a sign name also describes a person in a much more intimate way than their mere birth name can. Hearing people were given their names when they were very small, with hardly any personality to speak of beyond vomiting and shrieking; how can it possible relate to that name on a deeper level? Pfft.

I have a friend who is hearing and doesn’t sign at all. She has her rubbish birth name, of course, but when I think of her, she is called ‘To be honest…’ because that is pretty much her opening gambit for every single sentence she utters. Then I have another friend, bless his socks, who always, always finishes any laughing fit with a small ‘hmmm’. In my head, he is called ‘Hmmm’, not Neil. If they were Deafies, they would have sign names reflecting these instantly recognisable traits. She would be ‘honest’, with the crossing of the heart sign, and he would be… He’d have to be a hand vibrating in front of his chest or something. Purrrrrr.

So, dear Reader, this is my question to you; do you inadvertently give hearing people their own sign names? Do you let them know, or is it a secret? And I’m not talking about the guy in the Audi who cut you up on the M1 last week; we all know what that sign name is and it’s not exclusive to him, either… But are hearingies even allowed to have a sign name, whether they know they have it or not?

Is it a Deaf cultural thing that we should be keeping private and safe, or can we share it and give absolutely everyone in the world their own individual and unique sign name? I can think of a few celebrity ones already; George Bush, Jordan, Ryan Giggs…. Actually theirs probably wouldn’t be very individual and unique…

Do let me know your thoughts; I am, after all, only an orange fox with a gambling habit, and I need guidance before I decide whether or not to inform my neighbour her name is not actually Debbie, it’s ‘banana’.

Emily Howlett is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and horsewoman. She describes herself as being “equally fluent in English, BSL and Gibberish, and completely rubbish at French.” Emily can be found all over the place on various escapades, but divides her time between Derby and London. She can often be found behind a large packet of crisps or any halfway decent book, and insists she can still play characters in their early twenties despite having a grey eyebrow hair.

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancy Deafworks, and provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella.

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