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What are ‘sign names’?

Mariette, our Development Officer, explains what sign names are, why they’re important to the Deaf community and how Paul Hollywood was given one on Great British Bake Off.

“Have you been watching the Great British Bake Off? Did you see Tasha gifting Paul Hollywood his sign name in episode 1? Maybe you saw it, but are wondering what a ‘sign name’ even is and why it’s important?

Sign names are special because they’re each totally individual and unique to each person. Deaf Umbrella, an organisation which provides British Sign Language (BSL) interpreting services, describe sign names as:

“a fascinating component of Deaf culture that many people might not be aware of. A member of the Deaf community must provide you with a sign name, and it’s a privilege that should be greatly appreciated.”

The first time you introduce yourself in BSL, you fingerspell your name, and after that you can use your sign name. It’s quicker to communicate a sign name than fingerspell someone’s full name.

Types of sign name

There are two types of sign name:

  1. descriptive sign names
  2. initialised sign names.

Descriptive sign names are usually inspired by someone’s character or a trait they have, for example, their job, hobbies, or perhaps a physical feature like ‘curly hair’, ‘blow your nose with tissues’, ‘face dimple’ or ‘cross your legs’. There are really no limits, here!

Initialised sign names can be based on initials from a person’s name in English, such as ‘C’ for Cilla.

My sign name is a personalised version of an initialised sign name. My name is ‘Mariette’ and my sign name is based on a signed version of the letter ‘M’. I’m a fluent BSL user however, I went to school in Dublin, and so my name is ‘M’ signed in ISL (Irish Sign Language) rather than BSL. My sign name reflects both my name in English but also a little bit of my personal history!

Video: Mariette shows us her sign name.

Sign names on TV

Before giving Paul Hollywood his sign name, Tasha first explained how it had developed. She admitted that, sometimes she stumbles on her words and can mix up pronunciation. Starting with his ‘English name’ – Paul Hollywood – Tasha had mispronounced it ‘Pollywood’, which then got shortened to ‘Polly’. She then translated it into BSL by leaning of the association between ‘Polly’ as ‘parrot’, using the BSL sign for parrot as his sign name! (a pinching movement on the right shoulder mimicking a parrot’s beak).

Video: Mariette shows us Paul Hollywood’s sign name.

The most important point to remember is how special it was for Paul to be given a sign name. Being presented with your sign name from the Deaf community is a badge of honour and a sign of acceptance and appreciation. Paul is the first GBBO judge to receive a sign name, and I personally can’t wait to see if anyone else gets the same honour.

Never mind a ‘Hollywood Handshake’, the real achievement will be if anyone else gets a sign name!”

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