English Idioms in ASL

Note: I’m talking about ASL signs using English words to explain. In this post, I’m expanding on what I say in the video because you don’t have the same visuals. I do my best to make it clear how things are signed, but it’s not perfect.

Hello and welcome! As you know from the title, we’ll be discussing idioms today. As a deaf interpreter—and this applies to hearing interpreters as well— this is one of those things you have to understand well to be able to accurately interpret into ASL. I want to emphasize here that I’m talking about English idioms being interpreted into ASL. I’ll go through a few examples, but what I personally would do is generally sign what the idiom means and not the words. You’ll see as we go through them. Deaf people are often more direct and say what they mean. They don’t use too many metaphors or idioms. Most of the ones I’m talking about today are suggestions I got from my Instagram. There were a few in there that aren’t originally English, or ones more like slang not idioms. I have a list of more, so I might do more than one video, let me know if that’s something you’re interested in! I’ll stop talking and get to it.

Cat got your tongue? Obviously, this doesn’t really work for people like me. Something biting your tongue, I don’t use my tongue for talking. I interpret this simply as, Basically saying what’s wrong? But more concise. (This particular sign doesn’t necessarily mean “what’s wrong,” it can also be used to ask someone what’s up with them.)

Adding insult to injury. That was really English in how I just signed. I will be doing that for a lot of these idioms, so you know what I’m talking about. But really, even if I signed that phrase, how I sign it in ASL would be [finish injured, on top insult]. An example of how it tends to show up in ASL: My boss asked me to work longer hours. Even worse, they won’t pay me more money.

Heard through the grapevine. This really depends on if you’re talking about more of a sharing of information or rumors. If it’s just information, it tends to be signed a little more literal. [heard multiple times and moving around] Or if it’s about rumors, it’ll be [rumor repeated while moving in a large circle].


I want to add a few other similar phrases. Spread like wildfire. In ASL, you would sign it like [spread but moving extremely fast and one rapid motion with a sudden stop at the end].

Another one that’s used specifically in ASL only, I’m not sure how to interpret to English. I’ve seen people use this, [rumor handshapes, non-dominant hand staying in place, dominant hand moving in a quick circle, opening up as it moves away from the ND hand and closing as it touches the ND hand]. It’s like rumors, but moving very quickly in a circle.

Raining cats and dogs. That’s a really awkward phrase to sign, and I don’t sign it myself so I’m tripping up on signing that. Really, in ASL, we just show how serious the rain is. Regular rain is well, signed normally. Light rain is signed with shorter and quicker downward motions. Mist (or drizzle) is signed with all of the fingers wiggling in short downward motions along with a mouth morpheme to emphasize the smallness of it. For this phrase: [raining hard, pouring, hard rain]. It’s that simple.

A perfect segue into the next one, piece of cake. This just means something reallyyyy easy. In ASL, I would sign this, [nothing]. It can mean “that’s easy” or it can mean “oh, that’s nothing!” Really nothing. We have several meanings for that sign [nothing].

When pigs fly. This really means sure, that thing will not happen. It’ll never happen. Usually, deaf people’s response to that kind of statement would be: suuuuuuure. Or sure, sure, sure, sure. It tends to be more about the facial expressions than the words themselves.

Out of the blue. It means something unexpected. I would sign this a little bit different, it might depend on context, but I can’t think of examples of why I would sign one way over the other. There’s two ways I sign this. [punch] or [random]. I think [punch] would be more of a thing that happens to me and [random] might be something weird happening there. More of an outside thing, happening to someone else, or happening to a group of us.

Think outside of the box. Meaning think creatively, think differently. How to interpret to ASL… You could still use the box example, like: [staying the box, jump out, think different]. Or I would do: [think same-same, stop, go random].

Up in the air. It means waiting for something, don’t know, etc. ASL can sum this up into one simple sign: [????] That’s many questions marks. You make the shape of a question mark with your index finger for a normal question, but with this you make the question mark with all of your fingers.

Mountain out of a molehill. This is making a big deal out of a really small problem. ASL signs: [increasing chaos, really it’s little]. “Chaos” is not the best word to explain that sign. People will sometimes use the claw handshapes next to each other, rotating in small circles, to represent tension between two entities. Rotating it and moving it away from the non-dominant hand changes it into essentially, tension or something that started small that gets bigger and bigger.

That’s all for today! Let me know of more idioms you’d like to see, or what your favorite idiom is.

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Published by Rogan Shannon

Hello there! I'm Rogan, a queer deaf guy who has a passion for leadership and advocacy. I create YouTube videos about a lot of different topics - being deaf, queer, reading, language, and whatever else interests me!

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