Idioms in American Sign Language

A general online dictionary defines "idiom" as "A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements."

In English, for example, "raining cats and dogs" for heavy rain, "break a leg" meaning "to wish someone good luck".

In American Sign Language (ASL), there are some idioms of its own and some idioms influenced by a spoken language (English). Both languages may share a few similar idioms.

For example, the idiom BROWNNOSE (try to please the other; to suck up) in ASL, for example, is one of the terms that English and ASL share the same.

BROWNNOSE: to seek favor or approval from (someone) by obsequious behavior for personal gain.

The most common example of ASL idiom is TRAIN GONE, SORRY" (see video above contributed by June Ann LeFors) roughly translated in English as "Sorry, the train has been gone." It means "Sorry, I cannot repeat what I've just said." Or, "Sorry, you've just missed it and I won't repeat it."

train gone sorry
Cartoon by Matt and Kay Daigle. Permission.

If a signer is about to finish the last sentence with a listener at around the same time another person joins this group's conversation. The person might be curious and ask, "What did you just say?" The signer or listener in the group might say "train gone sorry." It means that they wouldn't repeat what they just talked. Usually, it is a friendly remark or sometimes a joke.

But, the signer B can joke "the train is back." The signer A then would sign "CIGARETTE-BURNED-OUT". See the video (contributed by June Ann LeFors, 2017) for a demonstration.

Another common ASL idiom is the verb phrase FINISH+TOUCH in which means "been there" or "been to" in English.

STAND-ON-FENCE for "uncertain", MIND+DISAPPEAR for "mind slips", FUNNY+ZERO for "That's not funny!" (in a semi-humorous sense), WON'T BITE-YOU for "don't be afraid of me".

The ASL sign "BIRD+PICKHEAD" in the video (contributed by LeFors, 2017) above means "my thought just disappeared" or "I just forgot now."

Video above: one ASL sign with different facial expressions can convey many different meanings: speechless, foot in mouth, flustered, 'cat get your tongue', etc.

Byron Bridges shared his collection of idioms as well as he explained the difference between idioms and compound words in ASL. Jump to timecode 2:15 to see the idioms (in glossed as): MIND-LIMITED, FREE EYES, FISH SWALLOWED, MONEY BEHIND, TRAIN ZOOM, TRUE WORK (sure enough), FUNNY ZERO, WRONG/ACCIDENTAL HAPPEN, THINK+EASY, BIRD PICK-MIND (obselete), TOUCH FINISH, TRUE SICK, DRY DISCUSSION, FACIAL-EXPRESSION FOR++?, RIGHT++ MIND-HEARING, RESPECT BLOW-AIR-HAND.

Anything else you know? Email me.

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