Name Signs in the Deaf Community

A Unique Identifier That Reflects How Deaf People Perceive You

"Name signs" in Deaf culture provide a unique, personal way to identify someone without fully spelling out their name using American Sign Language (ASL). These names often reflect the person's character and are usually devised by someone within the Deaf community

This article discusses the different types of name signs and how they are assigned. It also covers how you can introduce your name to others in the Deaf community.

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Types of Name Signs

Just as your name was carefully chosen by your parents, so is your name sign, also called your ASL name. It can take days to months for a deaf person (or community) to assign you your special ASL name.

There are two types of naming systems:

  • Arbitrary (or initialized): This type of name sign consists of the first letter(s) of a person's name.
  • Descriptive: Name signs that are descriptive are generally based on a unique or personal characteristic. This may include a person's physical appearance, manners, habits, or career.

If you have a great sense of humor or bubbly temperament, your name sign may be something like "Giggle" or "Sunshine." Your name sign may signify an interest or your occupation, like "Dance" or "Writer," or it may be characteristic of a physical feature, like "Curly hair" or "Beard."

There really is no limit or boundaries when it comes to receiving an ASL name.

That said, while many name signs provide a window into a person's personality or interests, others are more simple. For example, some people's name sign is the first letter of their name, like "C" for Caitlin or "J" for Jamie, and are called initialized name signs.

Name signs are generally chosen based on a unique characteristic, such as a personality trait or favorite hobby, and are known as descriptive name signs.

Some people have a combination of initialized and descriptive name signs, like the first letter of their name that is swirling like a fish for someone who is a swimmer.

If you love a specific animal, like cats, your name sign may be the first letter of your birth name to then sign "cat's whiskers" on your cheek. If you enjoy birds, your name sign could be the first letter of your birth name combined with the sign for bird.

Children and Name Signs

Deaf children tend to come up with sign names fairly quickly, so don't be taken aback if your kid-derived name sign is humor-based, like something they found particularly funny about your appearance or personality.

Try not to get offended, as choosing your name is all in good fun, and a true "sign" you are accepted by their community.

Not Everyone Has One

Not everyone affiliated with the Deaf community has a name sign, even if they've lived within it their entire lives.

It's not a requirement and some people just prefer to use their given name. This is especially true for people with short first names, like "Pat" or "Mike."

The ASL dictionary lists name signs for a number of famous people including Barack Obama, Wayne Gretzky, Kamala Harris, and Nyle Dimarco.

Introducing Your Sign Name

Whenever you introduce yourself to someone new, you should always fingerspell your actual name first. Then, it's customary within Deaf culture to explain your background (especially how you came to be involved with the Deaf community), as well as detailing your schooling, family, and friends.

Typically, people will learn your name sign through a third party and begin using it.

It is not uncommon for your name sign to change as you move between social and work groups since your personality and how you are perceived is likely different in these situations.

Your name sign may change if you meet a new group of friends, either because they see you differently or because someone else already has that name sign.

A Word From Verywell

The Deaf community has its own naming system within their native ASL language, and it's quite a gift to receive a name sign. Even more special is that your name sign is only used by deaf people—it should not be used on official documents or by people who hear.

If you have a name sign, you have been welcomed into the Deaf community. So accept your ASL name and enjoy this lovely honor.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lutzenberger H. Manual and Nonmanual Features of Name Signs in Kata Kolok and Sign Language of the Netherlands. Gallaudet University Press;2018.

  2. Handspeak. Name sign: a naming custom in Deaf culture.

  3. Handspeak. ASL sign language dictionary.

Additional Reading
  • HandSpeak: American Sign Language Online. (n.d.). Name signs: naming custom in Deaf culture. 

By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.