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What's your Sign Name?

by Charlie Swinbourne

18th June 2008

Have you ever thought about changing your name? Well, if you started hanging out with sign language users you will soon find they change it for you ... but it won't be the kind of name you might expect. Charlie Swinbourne explains the secret world of 'sign names'.
In the below video, Hand-Rubber, Waffle, Splasher and others tell you how they got their sign names.

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Charlie, sign name: take photo

[+] Click to reveal video transcript

Joe, Sign Name: Hand-Rubber

Hi - my name is Joe Collins, but my name is signed as 'hand-rubber.' A lot of people noticed, when I get excited about something, I rub my hands. They saw it again and again and the label stuck. So forget 'Joe' my name is 'Hand rubber'!

Angela, Sign Name: Angel

I'm Angela and my sign name is 'Angel.' Why 'Angel'? Well it's related to my name. It was given to me so long ago I can't remember - maybe ten years ago! So now I'm used to 'Angel'.

Derek, Sign Name: Earrings

I'm Derek, and my sign name is 'Earrings.' Because I used to have loads of rings in my ear. The rings came off, but I'm still called 'Earrings.'

Derek, Sign Name: Earrings

I'm Derek, and my sign name is 'Earrings.' Because I used to have loads of rings in my ear. The rings came off, but I'm still called 'Earrings.'

Billy, Sign Name: Piano player

I'm Billy - my sign name is 'Piano player'. Six years ago I was on TV playing the piano. I'm still called the piano man - I can't get rid of it!

Julian, Sign Name: Waffle

I'm Julian, and my sign name means 'Waffle'. Because my friends noticed I always talk and waffle on. So it became a combination of the letter 'J' and waffle. That's why!

David, Sign Name: Sand

I'm David Sands - my sign name is 'Sand.' It began at school because my surname is 'Sands'. And that was it - finished! Boring!

Sasha, Sign Name: Chopstick-in-hair

My name's Sasha and I have a few sign names. First, when with friends I sometimes spill my drinks. So now they've given me the sign name 'Splasher.' But I also have a formal sign name. Which is 'chopstick-in-hair' because my hair is so long.
If someone came up to you and introduced themselves like this: "Hello! I'm Secretive. Nice to meet you," what would you think?You would probably assume you'd misheard them or that they were behaving strangely. Perhaps you'd wonder what 'secretive' might be keeping from you.

In deaf life, people like Secretive aren't strange at all. Among my closest friends are Waffle, Piano-player, Angel, and even Hand-rubber. And that's just my work colleagues.

I'm not immune myself. My name is a combination of 'take photo' and the letter 'C' for Charlie. How on earth do you pronounce that, you might ask. Well the answer is you don't. You sign it.

If someone doesn't have a sign name, the alternative is to fingerspell it. But the beauty of a sign name - one swift gesture made with your hands - is that it's over as quickly, if not quicker, than you could say it. As opposed to taking a lot longer, S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G a name out L-E-T-T-E-R, by boring, impersonal, L-E-T-T-E-R. I nearly collapsed at my keyboard just writing that.

Sign names are a weird and wonderful thing, where your average hearing names like Matt, Jack or Jane look positively plain.

But before you get too excited about the possibility of throwing your dull, former identity away, let me point something out: you don't get to choose your sign name. You don't even get power of veto on it. It is given to you.

It makes sense. If deaf people could choose their name, you'd get loads of guys wandering around calling themselves Stud, Beer Belly or Jackie Chan's Lovechild. Women would probably call themselves Lip Gloss, Model or Soft Hair. I'm generalising, and stereotyping, but you get my point.

When a sign name is given to you, it's special. A bit like losing your deaf virginity. It's thought up after an intense period of observation, when people have worked out firstly whether they like you enough to give you one (a sign name, that is), and they've taken all your habits and mannerisms into account to find a name that best sums you up.
Your typical sign name is usually drawn from one of four areas:

Firstly, it could come from an aspect of your personality, such as talking all the time like my mate Waffle, or Hand-rubber for someone who rubs their hands a lot when they get excited.

Secondly, it could be something to do with your appearance, like wearing a lot of earrings or jewellery, what kind of hair you have, or make-up.

Thirdly it could be a play on your name, like Angel for someone called 'Angela', or if your surname is Burder ... well, keep reading to find out the story behind that one.

Angela, sign name: Angel
Finally, it could originate from a hobby or a job - such as playing a certain sport all the time, or being into drama or photography. If your sign name does happen to come from your job, your life gets a lot harder if you're a tax inspector, or an accountant.

If you're new to the deaf world, you could consider being given a sign name as a re-birth, a chance to be branded with a whole new identity. Like a deaf christening or baptism, it's a way of welcoming you to the community. Just without holy water, hymns, and having to wear your Sunday best with everyone you know looking on.

But this is where things turn dark. A sign name can 'make' you in the deaf world but, by the same token, it can also break you.

The fact is, once a sign name's been attached to your face and bandied around a bit, it's incredibly hard to shift. You're stuck with it, as a friend of mine found to his cost.

The chap in question had a sign attached to him that meant 'smooth'. He was a serial dater, you see, with the gift of the gab - or hands, for that matter. Smooth was quite happy go lucky, until one fateful night when some bright spark decided to rename him, quite against his will.

Unfortunately, Smooth had the surname Burder. Not a problem in itself. But things got boring in the pub one night amongst a bunch of deaf friends and they started to mess around. Someone started calling him 'Murder' and testing it out. They thought it was hilarious, and so did he, at least, at first.

They said nonsense things like, "Here's Murder coming round the corner, watch out!" and, "You never know when 'Murder' is going to creep up on you!" Then they'd collapse in fits of laughter. They called Smooth a killer and laughed some more.

Let me explain. When you sign 'murder', it's more than a sign. It's like a stabbing motion, your clenched fist raised above your shoulder, striking down on the person in front of you. The sign is rather like recreating the shower scene in the classic movie Psycho, just without the piercing music. Indeed, when you see the dramatic sign, you feel like you should take notes in case you're asked to give a statement later. So it seemed more than just a name, and the problem is, it stuck.
Billy, sign name: Piano Player
My friend went from Smooth to Murder in the blink of an eye, without even being able to call on a lawyer to appeal, get an injunction or plead his case.

Soon, Murder was taking over his life. Everywhere he went, his name went before him. People he met would laugh at being told his sign name.

Matters reached a head when the previously successful fellow didn't have a date for months - as if Smooth had been killed off and had been replaced by a murderous new alter ego who quite literally slaughtered his chances with women.

My guess is that somewhere deep in their unconscious, women began to see him as a threat, rather than dating material. And it was nothing to do with his personality at all.

I reckon that if he'd actually been a killer, he would have had greater chance of getting a girlfriend - through one of those strange women who writes to serial killers in prison and asks if they can marry them. Such is the power of a sign name.

Talking of disaster sign names, something similar happened to me three years ago. I debated whether to write about this, but since I'm delving into my friends' lives, I should mention something pertinent from my own. Here goes.
Sasha: sign name, chopstick-in-hair
One night in the pub (recognise a common theme here?) my mate uttered a hilarious, and quite filthy, punchline to a joke, just as I was sipping my beer. It's embarrassing but, as I laughed, I spluttered and, without even the aid of a bib, a mixture of what must have been lukewarm saliva and beer dribbled down my chin. For the sake of my street cred, I have to emphasise that this has happened to me just once, in the past 24 years. Honest.

This isolated event stretched beyond the pub, however. For a few weeks at work, I became known as Dribble, except it was signed almost as if there was a torrent of spit cascading down my face. Whatever I did, I couldn't stop people using the name. The sign name snowball effect had happened to me too. What was I to do?

It came to a head when one day I saw an interpreter describing me as 'Dribble' during a work meeting. That was it. I launched a protest against the name - a campaign against dribble, if you like. Luckily, I nipped it in the bud, and faithful old Charlie Photo came back. Phew.

I gather that Murder had a sentence of several years before the name finally drifted away - after leaving the country (or deporting himself) for a prolonged period. It's probably on a deaf version of a criminal record, somewhere, threatening to re-appear at a moment's notice.

When sign names turn bad (that's a good title for a Channel Five series if ever I heard one), remember that things could be worse. At least you have a sign name.

Whether good or bad, being bestowed with a sign name says something about who you are, and gives you an identity totally unique among your friends. Since this name is given to you by people you know, it signifies a bond between you.

So beware people with no sign name. Either they don't have any friends (hence never got given one) or are so boring that they simply don't deserve one.

Like the old maxim about publicity, the only thing worse than having a bad sign name is having no sign name at all. That'd be like you don't even exist.

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