Idioms are phrases that have figurative rather than literal meanings. They may compare two dissimilar things to mean something else entirely. They commonly appear in most languages as peculiar and eccentric additions but may not be commonly understood by everyone.
Idioms occur plentifully in American Sign Language (ASL) as well, and they have some of the following features:
- They may or may not be deviations of idioms or words found in the English language.
- They are expressed with signs and facial expressions.
- They can contain single or compound signs as well as entire phrases.
Some Commonly Used ASL Idioms and Their Meanings
The word or phrase in bold is an ASL idiom followed by an English translation and a description of the sign.
1. Train-Gone/Train-Go-Sorry – You have missed the boat.
Hold your arms before you at slightly under chin level with the index fingers of both hands extended. Hold the left hand with the index finger and thumb pointing to the right with the other fingers curled close. Hold the right hand on top of the left hand with the right thumb resting on the extended left index finger and the right index finger pointing upwards. Move the right hand away bringing together the right index finger and right thumb in a pinching motion with the left hand kept in the same position.
2. Cigarette-Gone – You have missed the boat.
Same sign. Except you rest the right index finger and the right small finger on the left hand.
3. Finish-Touch – Been there. Done that.
Hold your hands before you with the palms facing upward and the fingers open wide. Turn your palms inwards towards each other and then facing away outward from you. This is the sign for Finish. Now you make the sign for Touch by by holding your left hand with the palm facing downward at chest level and then dropping the third finger of the right hand on top of it.
4. Mind-Frozen – Hard to think.
Touch your temple with your right index finger and hold the left hand fingers separated and facing downward held loosely before you. Move your right and left hands downward simultaneously with the fingers curled in a slightly claw-like position.
5. Think-Disappear – It slipped my mind.
Hold the right index finger up against your forehead and hold your left palm, fingers close together and palm downward, in front of it at the midpoint of the right index finger. Bring the right index finger down while keeping the left hand in the same position.
6. Angry-Me – I'm furious.
Curl the fingers of both hands into claws and, with hands held at the stomach, pull up in a ripping motion. You can also hold your right hand before your face and curl the fingers in clawing motion. In both cases, have a suitably angry expression.
7. I-I-I – A huge ego.
Make the 'I' sign three times. Extend your little finger and curl close the others fingers including the thumb. Repeat with both hands on the chest.
8. Laugh-Me-Finish – Stop making fun of me.
Smile. Hold both hands near the smile with the index fingers pointing to it. Move the fingers away and then near. Point to yourself and then make the sign for Finish as shown above.
9. Vomit – I find it repulsive.
Make a disgusted expression. Open your mouth, and move your extended right hand with open fingers from your mouth in the downward direction.
10. Funny-None – It's not in the least funny.
Wrinkle up your nose slightly. Hold the right index finger to the bridge of the nose and move it down to the nose tip and then down under mouth. Repeat. This is the sign for Funny. For None, hold both arms, bent at the elbows before you, with the hands held upward and the fingers curled to meet the thumbs in an O. Move hands up and down, shaking your head once.
11. Grab-Eyes – It's very fascinating.
Point to each eye and make a grabbing motion with both hands at chest level.
12. Cow-It – Slowpoke.
Hold your right hand with the little finger extended upwards, the thumb extended sideways, and the other fingers curled close. Rest the extended thumb against your temple, and twist your hand so the extended little finger points forward and then upward again. Tilt the head slightly. This is the sign for Cow. Now change the hand position to extend the index finger and curl closed all other fingers. Make a grimace.
13. Blood-Fill-Face – Left embarrassed.
Place the right index finger against nose tip and bring it down over the chin to the neck. Open the fingers facing inward to the neck. Bring up the left hand in same position. Move up both hands to the side of face at eyelevel.
14. Swallow-Fish – Gullible.
Hold the right hand before you at chin level palm facing to the left. Open your mouth and show your tongue. Move the palm forward and backward, opening and closing your mouth.
For a printable download of the ASL vocabulary in this article, please see ASL Idioms and Their Meanings.