Name signs work very differently from given names in English. While parents think long and hard about their choice of English name for their child, name signs are not chosen the same way. It is actually considered inappropriate to sit down and make up a name sign for a person. Instead, name signs need to happen or evolve naturally.
Let me tell you the story of my name sign. My English name is Asphyxia. It’s actually a medical word which means ‘suffocation’. I know – that’s not a very positive meaning for a name. How I got the name Asphyxia is another story, and it actually has a positive meaning for me. Anyway, when I was eighteen and learning Auslan for the first time, my teacher, Robert Adam, used to call the roll. He’d go around the class, fingerspelling each person’s name. However, when he got to me, he could never fingerspell my name – too long, too many confusing letters. So instead, for me, he’d do the sign ‘choke’. That stuck, and now it’s my name sign.
A name sign can only be given by a Deaf person. It is not appropriate for hearing people to make up name signs. If you don’t have a name sign, please fingerspell your name in full. Perhaps down the track, a Deaf person will give you a name sign. But it is not appropriate to ask or to try to make it happen.
Name signs are often based on a characteristic of a person. I know of a woman whose sign is based on the word ‘girl’ and ’11’ – because she was the girl in room 11 at her Deaf boarding school. Name signs can refer to curly hair, nose rings, glasses or even birthmarks. Often, there’s an element of teasing in a name sign: I know two people whose name signs are based on the word ‘careless’. Using a person’s initials is also a very common name sign.