In American Sign Language, deaf individuals have two names. The first corresponds to their first and last English names, and is fingerspelled - each letter of the name is presented individually. This type of name can be used for any person, such as R-i-c-h-a-r-d N-i-x-o-n. The second name is called a name sign. While frequently used as a sort of shorthand way of referring to someone, name signs can also offer information about familial connections, status within a community, and relationships with the world at large.

Before knowing how to make a name sign, it's helpful to know what you will be doing with it. Most of the time, a person's name will be fingerspelled - by the person or someone who is talking about them - and then the name sign is given. From that point on in the conversation, the name sign is understood to represent that person. If somebody else joins the discussion, the person's English name must be established again. Name signs do not replace English names!

Name signs are constructed using three different elements. The first two, handshape and location, are present in all name signs. Some name signs also incorporate movement. Handshapes are commonly taken from the fingerspelling alphabet, though any explicitly defined ASL handshape is acceptable. Location may be "neutral space" in front of the signer's body, at one location on the body, or at two locations - which is part of where movement comes in. Movement may also be used in neutral space or at one location, but the hand does not leave its position on the body.

There are two different types of name signs: Arbitrary (ANS) and Descriptive (DNS). The overwhelming majority of name signs - 81 percent - are arbitrary name signs. These have no connection to an ASL sign, though they might appear to be formed in a similar manner. Arbitrary name signs frequently incorporate the person's first initial, though the Z handshape is not used.

Let's look at a few example Arbitrary Name Signs - mine and one of a Gallaudet University professor. My name sign uses all three components: the handshape (M), location (side of chin, near the mouth), and movement (brushing forward twice). Although this can be described as "looks like the sign for girl made with an M," it is considered an arbitrary name sign. One of my professors at Gallaudet used his first initial (D) in neutral space with a slight side-to-side movement of the index finger.

And how about Descriptive Name Signs? As examples, I'll use another professor at Gallaudet and a former President of the United States. The professor's last name is Byrd, so his name sign is simply the sign for "bird" - no changes in handshape or positioning, and no indication that his name is spelled with a y. As for the aforementioned Richard Nixon, his name sign describes an attribute easily recognizable in association with the individual. The sign for liar is normally made with the flat hand moving horizontally across the chin; Nixon's name sign uses a modified N handshape in the same movement. Other DNSes may reference a person's appearance, such as a scar on the face or extreme height - I know a very tall deaf man whose name sign is the sign for giraffe!

How is a name sign chosen? In the case of adult hearing signers, most are expected to wait for a Deaf person to assign them a name sign. Deaf children born into a hearing family will not get a name sign right away, unless someone in the family is already part of the Deaf community. If such a child is sent to a residential school for the deaf, their Deaf classmates - those born to Deaf parents - are typically responsible for assigning a name sign; if the child is mainstreamed then the task usually falls to their first teacher. When a child (deaf or hearing) is born into a Deaf family, they will almost always receive a name sign at or shortly after birth. (These are invariably ANSes, as the infant doesn't have any traits to assign a DNS to!)

What happens if someone moves into a community where their name sign is already "taken" by someone else? If the newcomer is hearing, they will be the one expected to alter their name sign. This is typically done by adding another handshape, usually the person's second initial, to the same location and movement they already used. If the newcomer is also part of the Deaf community, the distinction will be less clear.

But how do name signs show relationships? Within one family, all of the children may share the same positioning element - Tommy has a T at the forehead, Billy has a B at the forehead, and so forth. The same is commonly true when a teacher in a mainstreaming classroom is assigning name signs on the first day of school.

It is important to remember that not everyone has a name sign - individuals with short names that flow from the fingers frequently go without a name sign. Examples of this include Jen, Bob, and Sue. (As a side note, another interesting name is Sofia. Some girls might use a name sign, but others fingerspell the name because of its appearance on the fingers - not unlike a flower opening and closing in time-lapse photography.)

The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language by Sam Supalla
Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World by Leah Hager Cohen
...and more than a little bit of personal experience.