Have you ever been a newbie language learner and accidentally said something completely different from what you meant? It’s more common than you think, and happens in most languages, including American Sign Language (ASL).
To make matters worse for new ASL users, many signs are incredibly similar to each other. And while your Deaf friends might get a good laugh when you accidentally sign f**k you instead of thank you, it’s still best to know the correct signs when interacting within the Deaf community.
Let’s review 20 different signs that are close, but not the same.
1. and 2. Month and Condom
Some signs are a combination of other signs to make one word. To sign condom, you first sign rubber; then, with your non-dominant finger representing a penis, you gesture putting the rubber on. On the other hand, the sign for month does not have any sign combinations or visual representations of the action. It’s important to note that your dominant hand does the moving while your non-dominant hand is stationary. This remains true for all signs where only one hand moves in ASL.
3. and 4. Bug and Orgasm
Your facial expression and the repetition of a sign can change their meaning, as we see with bug and orgasm. Your facial expressions are an important part of ASL’s linguistic structure, indicating emotion, grammar, and inflection.
5. and 6. Shy and Whore
A lot of signs look similar to their meaning, which is true for shy and whore. If you can recognize what the sign is supposed to look like, you’ll have a much easier time remembering their meaning. For example, shy has a bashful gesture and whore brushes against your cheek in a representation of the rouge that historical sex workers wore.
7. and 8. Hungry and Horny
Just like bug vs. orgasm, your facial expression and the repetitive motion differentiate the signs for hungry and horny. Sometimes, context and your facial expression are the only differences between signs that use the same hand shape, placement, and motion. Here, we have the added benefit of repetition to help distinguish between hungry and horny, but that isn’t the case for every similar sign you will encounter.
9. and 10. Thirsty and Horny
In English, we have pop, soda, and Coke, which all refer to soft drinks. This type of regional slang and variation also applies to ASL, which is why horny appears in this article twice, and is signed differently. Some signs change based on the state you’re in, and you’ll often see multiple variations of the same sign.
11. and 12. Work and Sex
There’s more than one way to sign sex, but the risk with this particular version lies in mixing it up with the sign for work. The difference is in the wrist orientation: Work has the wrist of the dominant hand bumping up against the top of the wrist of the non-dominant hand, while sex has a visual meaning, with the bottoms of your wrists representing two people coming together in a grinding motion. Mix up these two signs and asking someone where they work could suddenly take on a whole new meaning.
13. and 14. Depressed and Naked
Because depression has emotional association, your facial expression when signing depressed should represent that emotional inflection. (Similarly, if you’re signing happy, you should look happy.) You can sometimes change a sign’s meaning by changing the location. For example, if you take the sign empty, and sign it down your body, you’re saying you’re empty of clothes, a.k.a. naked. If you’re talking about your room and you sign empty in the open air, you’re saying your room is empty.
15. and 16. Poop and Diarrhea
It makes sense that the sign for diarrhea looks incredibly similar to the sign for poop. Think of poop as one solid and fluid motion, whereas diarrhea is a continuous flow. Your non-dominant hand remains the same shape for these signs since it represents you, and the change in your dominant hand from being closed to open represents what kind of bowel movement you’re having.
17. and 18. Coffee and Make Out
Unlike poop vs. diarrhea, there’s no real reason why the signs for coffee and make out look so similar to each other. Still, telling the Starbucks barista you want to make out when you’re trying to order coffee is less than ideal. Think of coffee as being mixed with other ingredients, and make out as two heads touching each other.
19. and 20. Pink vs. Penis
This unfortunate mix up has been seen a few times in the Deaf community, because the difference here is touching your lip versus touching your nose. Think of pink touching your lips because it represents the color of your lips. If the handshape isn’t touching your lip … well, then it isn’t the sign for pink.
Learning a new language can be a fun and exciting journey, but you can expect to mess up along the way. The quickest way for you to learn sign language is to surround yourself with native signers, and keep practicing, even after making embarrassing mistakes.
Tyler Sheppard, a Deaf person and native signer, demonstrated the signs in the videos in this article.
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