ASL: How to Interpret Popular Deaf Expressions

American Sign Language (ASL) uses expressions in much the same way that English does. Practice these expressions with people who’ve been signing for a while to make a shortcut to your success:

  • Swallowed the fish. The idea behind this idiom is right up there with the word gullible. You can sign it about yourself or another person. You use it in good humor after someone has mistakenly placed his or her trust in someone he or she shouldn’t have.

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  • Train gone. You don’t normally direct this light-hearted idiom toward yourself, but rather toward someone else. This sign, which can be compared to the English idiom “missed the boat” is often used when someone tells a joke and everyone is laughing except for one person, or when one person wants something repeated that everyone else managed to understand the first time. At these times, someone will look at that person, smile, and sign TRAIN GONE.

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    The facial expression for this Sign may be puffed cheeks (imitating a smokestack) or just a blank stare, whichever you prefer. Either way, everyone will know that someone didn’t catch the information.

  • Pea brain. Hearing people use this idiom as well, but just as with English, this is one idiom that you shouldn’t use very often because it’s not polite. In fact, it’s somewhat offensive, although perhaps in a group of good friends you can get away with it if you mean it in good fun.

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  • Shucks/Darn! Use this expression when something didn’t go as expected. If you’ve ever experienced this situation, you’ll probably already know how it’s used.

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  • I hope. Crossing your fingers on both hands is an expression that means I hope; it’s pretty simplistic and is generally understood in both the hearing and Deaf worlds alike.

  • Your guess is as good as mine. This expression is also used in English and only after someone asks a question. In Sign language, you can ask a question and use this expression at the same time.

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    A good facial expression to go with it is to smirk (smiling with just the corner of your mouth) and raise your eyebrows. You can also make the size of the sign bigger to tell whomever you’re signing to that you really don’t have any idea whatsoever.

  • Cool! You can sign this expression in one of two ways; both have the same meaning but in different degrees. You use it in response to something communicated to you by another person.

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    Be sure to make the sign on your chest, leaving your facial expression fully visible — that’s where the difference is. Forming an “ooh” shape with your mouth means really cool. Opening your mouth wide can mean a surprised cool.

  • 5 to manual S under chin. Make this sign when you witness or express an embarrassing action. Open your eyes wide; you can even put on a nervous smile as you express it. This Sign is done with the manual 5 palm facing the signer and is closed to make the manual S — it signifies a lump in your throat.

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  • Bent ring finger. By making this Sign, you’re saying that someone is ultra-conservative, close-minded, or just an old-fashioned square. Your facial expression is lips pressed tightly together, perhaps paired with a snobbish-type expression.

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  • Crossed index fingers in “X” handshape. This expression is commonly used in both hearing and Deaf worlds. It’s sometimes used when someone sneezes and you want to let that person know that you don’t want to catch his or her cold. It can also mean stay back or don’t come any closer.

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