Taboo words and expressions are usually among the first things second-language learners want to learn—a fact not lost on sign language instructors like Barry Priori (first introduced to Strong Language in a Sweary Links roundup), who ran “swearing workshops” at the Adelaide Fringe Festival to boost awareness of Australian Sign Language (Auslan). Swearing in sign language is incredibly nuanced and is about much more than learning a simple handshape or gesture. Get it wrong, and you might alienate an entire community, as Kristin Henson found out.
Henson hosted videos on the popular YouTube channel Dirty Signs with Kristin in which she taught her interpretations for signs representing profanity or crude phrases in pop culture, including skullfuck, cunt punt and twat waffle. Her notoriety landed her a book deal, but members of the Deaf community  launched a petition urging the publisher to drop the book because, according to sign language instructor Andrea K. Smith, Henson’s signs were “woefully inaccurate, poorly performed, and completely misguiding to those who may be seeking to learn more about American Sign Language.”
So what did Henson do wrong? How do you swear in sign language?
First things first—just as there’s no one spoken language called “Chinese” or “Indian,” there’s no one sign language, even among English-speaking countries. Americans and Canadians typically learn American Sign Language (ASL), although people in Quebec may use  Quebec Sign Language. (Fascinatingly, Plains Indian Sign Language served as a lingua franca for trade and storytelling among indigenous groups that collectively used at least forty different spoken languages.)
In the UK, people use British Sign Language (BSL). BSL, Auslan, and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) are all dialects of BANZSL. Irish Sign Language is quite different and is more closely related to French Sign Language. South Africa also has its own sign language.
Each of these languages has its own grammar and is distinct from manually coded English (MCE), which are signing systems based on English syntax that interpreters may use to sign and speak at the same time.
What is taboo in sign language?
Here’s where I’ll admit that the title of this post is horribly misleading: insults and swearing in sign language often have more to do with everything other than one’s hands. These “nonmanual markers”—including facial expression and body positioning—are what can make an otherwise innocuous sign crude. “For example,” explain linguists Gene Mirus, Jami Fisher, and Donna Jo Napoli in “Taboo expressions in American Sign Language” (words in all caps refer to signs), “VAGINA, the anatomical term, differs from PUSSY, the name-calling taboo term, by the fact that the latter calls for a quick, sharp movement and sometimes an angry (or perhaps joking, depending on the situation) facial expression.”
The location of the sign also carries meaning: “The nose is the location of a handful of signs having to do with unpleasant things, such as UGLY, BORING, SNOB, and while today many signs without a pejorative connotation are made at the nose, that location used to be reserved for slang or taboo signs, and it is still employed in coining insults.” Mirus et al. give this example: “There are various taboo signs that mean ‘shit’. One is made with an S-handshape in front of the nose followed by either an elbow movement lowering the hand away from the nose, or a wrist nod (perhaps with a slight twist)… We contend that the location allows the sign to exploit the pejorative connotations associated with the nose.”
In ASL, taboo expressions can be isolated single signs or embedded in larger syntactic structures as referential noun phrases or predicates but, unlike English, not as modifiers. An inoffensive sentence can be rendered taboo when it’s followed up with a second emphatic sentence that is completely offensive, a technique that signers can use to catch someone off guard and inject a bit of humour into the conversation.
When coining or using a taboo sign is not convenient—if you’re around a bunch of kids, say, and don’t want them picking up your foul language—you can always fingerspell the English swearword.
One insult unique to the Deaf community is to refer pejoratively to hearing people: “take the sign HEARING and change its location from in front of the lips to in front of the forehead, to mean THINK-LIKE-A-HEARING-PERSON…. This sign is derogatory or degrading because it indicates a person who uses hearing-based behaviors and norms, thereby going contrary to culturally Deaf tendencies.” Mirus and co-authors go on to say that it’s not uncommon for signers to use wild, exaggerated gestures to mimic and mock people who are new to signing. Switching to manually coded English is another strategy to patronizingly imply a sign language learner’s lack of mastery.
What’s not taboo in sign language?
Just as hearing people can (often unknowingly) ruffle feathers in the Deaf community, there’s a bit of culture shock that goes the other way, too. According to Mirus et al.:
It is common practice within Deaf communities (at least in the Americas and Europe, but also in other Deaf communities we have read about) to describe a person based on physical characteristics that are visually obvious, whether or not mentioning those characteristics might be considered vulgar in spoken language. For example, if you want to pick out a woman from a group and she’s remarkable among that group because of her ample breasts, then an ASL signer is probably going to employ some type of classifier construction to show the shape and size of the breasts, by cupping the hands around the imaginary breasts and then moving the hands away from the body to show the extent of the breasts (just as an ASL signer might pick someone out by their large nose, acned skin, or asymmetrically placed eyes).
A few comedians have picked up on this practice, including Adam Hills, who is an advocate for people with disabilities and sometimes uses sign interpreters at his shows, and Russell Peters, who attended a special needs high school. Hills riffs on Auslan signs, while Peters tackles ASL. (I’ve included transcripts for these clips and should probably warn you that political correctness wasn’t exactly what the comedians were going for.)
Adam Hills at the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Hello, everyone. I’d like to start on a vaguely controversial note. Go with me, though.
Um, deaf people, I’ve learnt, are really racist. [Laughter] Oh, that’s right. I’m not afraid to say it out loud. [Laughter]
I don’t mean that entirely, but I do kinda. I often do shows with sign interpreters, and I’ve learnt a little bit of sign language. And I’ve learnt that there are different signs for different countries. And some of those signs make perfect sense. But some of those signs seem to me to be vaguely offensive.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. This, this is a sign that makes perfect sense: this is the British Sign Language sign for Scotland. [Moves his elbow in and out. Laughter.] Makes sense. It’s a Scottish man playing the bagpipes. Or a Glaswegian man in a pub going, “Do you want a drink? I’ll buy you a drink. Can I get you a drink?” Either way, it make sense.
Uh, England, the sign for England is this. [Makes the British Sign Language E.] Because that’s the letter E, so you go England. But if you’re outside of England, you might be in a country that has a different alphabet. That’s not going to make any sense. You can do this. [Puts thumb and index finger on his chin, against his face.] Why? ’Cause it’s the strap on a bobby’s helmet [Laughter]—which is lovely, but confusing. ’Cause that’s England [Puts thumb and index finger on his chin, against his face]; that’s lesbian [Puts thumb and index finger on his chin, angled upward]. [Laughter] I think you can work out why. [Laughter] How confusing is that? England, lesbian. England, lesbian. You don’t want to get those two mixed up! You don’t want to go out to a nightclub, pick up two girls, take ’em home and then find out they’re both English! [Laughter]
Here’s where it starts getting vaguely offensive. The British Sign Language sign for Ireland is this: [Flicks fingers from his right hand against his left lapel.] Yeah, and if you ask an English person why that is, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s the shamrock. I know, I have a shamrock in my lapel, and it’s sticking out like that—that’s what that is.” No it’s not! [Laughter.] That is English people going, “Eww… Oh my dear Lord, there seem to be Irish people on me!” [Laughter]
The one that got me, though, is the British Sign Language sign for Australia, OK? This is the British Sign Language sign for Australia, which is also the sign we use in Australia to represent ourselves in sign language. It’s this. [Puts his microphone in his pants pocket]
Well, that’s not it. [Laughter] There aren’t deaf people around the world, where people go, “Oh, where are you from?” “Fuck, I’ll need a microphone!” [Laughter, applause]
The British Sign Language sign for Australia, which is also the sign we use in Australia, is this: [Mimes picking something up from his left, then dropping it on his right. Laughter] That’s offensive! That is English people saying, “Oh, we’ve picked the dirty scum up and we’ve put them over there.” [Laughter] If you’re gonna make a sign for Australia, at least make it vaguely Australian. Yeah, something like: [Mimes opening a beer can]
Do you know what? I reckon that if you’re English and you want to demonstrate Australia, all you have to do is this: [Mimes bowling a cricket ball. Laughter, applause from the audience.]
Let’s be honest, though. After we lost the last Ashes, I reckon the English sign for Australia could well be this: [Mimes batsman missing the ball, walking off in frustration]
Do you know what’s great about that, is that about four weeks ago, I was on a flight. I was in Adelaide, and I got on a flight to come back to Melbourne, and when I did, the stewardess recognized me, and she went, “Oh, hello, you’re Adam Hills.”
I went, “Yes I am,”
She went, “You’re just seated here, Mr. Hills,”
So I went, “Oh, thanks very much.”
She went, “I really like the routine you do about sign language.”
I went, “Aw, thanks—that’s lovely.”
And she said, and I’m not kidding: “In fact, I’ve managed to incorporate a bit of it into the safety demonstration.” [Laughter]
And I’m thinking what bit could she possibly have worked in? And I went back through my head, all my favourite bits of sign language, and there’s one that’s my absolute favourite piece of sign language, and you will only ever see this in Australia, OK? This is a sign that only exists in Australian Sign Language, because it sums up a phrase that only exists in Australian spoken language. The sign, I’m not making it up, is this: [Sticks middle finger out front, then sticks out both middle fingers to the sides.] I’ll show you again. [Repeats the gesture.] What that means is, “Fuck you—fuck the lot of yous.”
So let’s go back. I’ve sat down. She said, “I like your bit about sign language.”
“Yes. In fact, I’ve managed to incorporate a bit of it into the safety demonstration.”
I’m just sitting there, thinking, “No, you di’in’t.” I’ve never paid that much attention to the safety demonstration in my life. I swear to God, she got to the end, and did this: “In case of an emergency, your exits are here [sticks middle finger straight out] and here [sticks both middle fingers out to the sides].” [Laughter, applause]
What’s even better was I was back in Adelaide two weeks ago for the Adelaide Fringe, and she passed me by on the street. And I didn’t recognize her. And she went, “Hi Adam.”
And I went, “Yeah, hi.” and kept eating.
And she went, “No it’s me.”
And I went, “Yeah, good on ya.”
And the she went, “No. [Clears throat] Are you keeping an eye out for your exits? [Does the middle finger gesture.]”
And I went, “Oh my God, it’s you! I’ve been telling that story on stage ever since you did that.”
And she went, “Good, ’cause I do it on every flight now.”
Do you know what I love—and then she went, “Although I do check to make sure there aren’t deaf people on board first.” [Laughter]
’Cause how funny would that be? You’re a deaf guy, you’ve got on a plane, and you see this: “In case of an emergency, fuck you—fuck the lot of yous.” [Laughter, applause]
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. See you later.
Russell Peters in his 2008 special, Red, White and Brown
You know, somebody got mad at me one night. They go, “You know, Russell, it’s cool when you make fun of different races, but you shouldn’t talk about deaf people.”
I was, like, “What?”
“You shouldn’t talk about deaf people.”
“No, seriously—what?” [Laughter]
You know what, fuck deaf people! Are they here? You know, even if they were, it’s up to you to tell what I’m saying. [Laughter] Fuck ’em in their ears! Let me tell you something about deaf people—and I know this shit second hand. [Laughter] If a person’s been deaf their whole life, from day one to now, their life is just as normal as yours and ours, because they’ve got nothing to compare it to. So them being deaf is equivalent to us hearing things. The only time they know something is off is when we start fucking with them. And women are the worst at this shit. ’Cause women will walk up to a deaf guy and go, “Aw…oh, that’s sad! Tsk. Aw… Look. [points] Poor guy—he’s deaf!”
And the deaf guy doesn’t know what’s happening. He’s like, “What happened?” [Looks down] “Is something on my shirt?”
And women don’t know when to stop. They’re like, “Oh, you should hear music.”
Deaf guy’s like, “You should hear nothing.” [Laughter] “So much better!”
You gotta figure being deaf can’t be that bad. It’s gotta have a positive side to it. Say you have a girlfriend. [Laughter, applause] OK, wait—say you have my ex-girlfriend. She’s giving you shit; you don’t know! All you see is: [mimes being angry and swearing]. And he’s thinking in his head, “She’s so beautiful when she dances. So much passion.”
‘K, before you judge me—I see a lot of people uncomfortable and looking at me like you’re going to hell with me. Well, you are. Let me tell you how I know about deaf people, all right? Here’s how I know. Here’s what happened. Here’s my story, and this is true.
After tenth grade, I got kicked out of regular high school—regular high school being where most of you probably went to school. Well, I got kicked out. ’Cause… I don’t know how it works in America, but in Canada, in high school, you earn eight credits every year. So by the end of tenth grade, you should have sixteen credits. Well, I had seven. [Laughter] Actually, I had five. [Laughter] But I picked up two in summer school, ’cause I was trying to catch up, right? I did that, really. So the school I was going to genuinely thought I was slow. Like, they thought I was a fucking retard. [Laughter] They just did. They thought… And the only reason I know they thought I was slow—not ’cause they kicked me out and sent me to the retard school. That was obvious. I knew they thought I was slow, because I remember the day the guidance counsellor called me into the office and started speaking to me, he started speaking to me all slow. Now, I didn’t know he thought I was slow—I thought he was slow. [Laughter] And I didn’t want to make him feel bad, what with all my fast speech. And he calls me in, and he’s like [slowly], “Russell.” And I’m, like [slowly] “Uh-huh…”
He’s like, “This guy’s fucking retarded. Send him to the other school.”
So they kicked me out of my school and sent me to the retard school down the street. Now when I say I went to the retard school down the street, I don’t mean, “My school is fucking retarded.” I mean, “My school—b’tooooing—was fucking retarded, like, if you had anything wrong with you, you went to my school. You were in a wheelchair, you went to my school. You were on crutches, you went to my school. You were blind, you were deaf, you were autistic, you had Tourette’s, you had behavioural problems, you went to my school. My school had ramps [points wildly] all over the fucking place! [Laughter] It looked like Tony Hawk designed my school. [Laughter]
And in my school, in our cafeteria, we had one lunch period for the entire school—one. One lunch period for the entire school. The whole school was in the cafeteria at once, and it was the best shit you’ve ever seen in your life. ’Cause everybody with the same shit wrong with them would hang out with each other. Like, all the wheelchair kids would roll together. All the blind kids would hang out with each other—I don’t even know how the blind kids found each other. [Laughter] All the autistic kids would sit there for forty-five minutes, just rocking. [Laughter]
Fuck you—I had to live this life for two years!
And everybody in my school knew one thing: nobody, but nobody, fucked with the deaf kids. Nobody. ’Cause I don’t know if you know this or not, but deaf kids are strong as shit. [Laughter] The are, like, they have the strength of, like, fourteen gorillas, these kids. And the only reason I knew is ’cause one of my homeboys got into a fight with a deaf kid, and that deaf kid beat thirty-seven kinds of shit out of my friend. [Laughter] He just went into this… he just kept whaling on him and bashing him in the face, and I don’t know if it’s cause he couldn’t hear the sound of [simulates sound of a punch] but he just went berserk into this, like, weird deaf rage, and he was, like, “Waaaaaaaaaah!” [mimes punching someone repeatedly] “I don’t know if he was lip-reading wrong, you know. My bro was like, “Stop!!! Ow!” And he was like, “Stop telling me ‘fuck off’!”
Now I see some of you are still judging me based on this subject matter. Maybe this will clear the air.
Does anybody here know sign language? And I mean actual sign language, not this: [raises middle finger]. [Laughter] And not gang signs. You can’t do gang signs to a deaf person; he’d be like, “That guy stutters.” [Laughter] You know.
If you know sign language, you’ll know that I’m not making this shit up. Whoever invented sign language had their own little racist agenda happening. ’Cause sign language is a very offensive way of communicating. They’re trying to change it now to make it more politically correct. I’m serious. Do you know what the sign for Chinese person is? Let me tell you something. It’s exactly what you think it is. [Laughter] [Pulls side of eye.] [Laughter] You still feel bad for these deaf sons of bitches? You know what the sign for Indian person is? [Mimes putting on a bindi] [Laughter]
Because I live in LA, I had to learn the sign for Mexican. I learned two signs for Mexican. The first one doesn’t even seem offensive till you find out what it is. This is the first sign for Mexican—look: [mimes draping something over the shoulders]. You know what that is? A poncho. [Laughter]
Here’s the second sign for Mexican—this is fucked up, too—look: [mimes twirling a moustache]. [Laughter] A long-ass moustache! What the fuck does that have to do with being Mexican? My gardener’s never shown up at my house, “Hola señor! I’m here to shave the grass!” [Twirls moustache]
You’re Colombian. I don’t know what the sign for Colombian is—probably [mimes snorting cocaine off the back of his hand]. [Laughter] You know, I don’t know. I’m just saying. Cubans, probably [mimes swimming] I don’t know, I’m just saying. I’m just speculating on these ones. Black people, I don’t know what the sign for black people is, you know, it’s probably fucked up, you know. “I don’t know—I think he was a ne- [touches his knee] gro [moves his hand upward]. I’m just saying. I don’t know. I cannot confirm these ones. But anything is possible.
Do you know what the sign for retard is? This is foul. I’m not making this up. This is the sign for retard: [taps forehead with back of two fingers while grimacing]. That’s the sign for retard! [Does the sign again.] You can have two deaf guys standing around going, “Hey look—[repeats the sign].” You have handicapped people mocking other handicapped people! [Laughter]
Jews, I don’t know what you’ve done to the deaf community. I don’t know if they had land and you wanted it [Laughter], but I learned… [Laughter, applause] I learned three signs for Jewish people, and I’m not making this shit up. Each sign is progressively more offensive than the next. The first—here’s the first sign for a Jewish person. Now, the first sign isn’t so bad. It kind of makes sense when you see it. Here’s the first sign for Jewish person—look [mimes caressing a long beard].[Laughter] Right? It’s a long beard. You go, “Oh, that makes sense. A Hasidic guy, yeah, that makes sense.” Then they get start to get fucked up—and I’m not making this shit up. Here’s the second sign for Jewish person: [brings his fingers together in front of his face to imply a large nose]. [Laughter] That’s fucked up, isn’t it? And here’s the third sign for Jew—and I’m not making any of this shit up. Look: [mimes rubbing money between his fingers]. That’s foul shit.
Arabs—I don’t know what the sign for Arab is, but I can only imagine, you know: [mimes being a suicide bomber, ululating while throwing a rock]. You know what, it can’t be [ululates while pretending to throw a rock] ’cause deaf people can’t hit that note! [Laughter] It’d be more like [ululates slowly at lower pitch while pretending to throw a rock]. [Laughter]
Thank you very much—you guys rock!
Sign profanity education
Despite differences between the Deaf and hearing communities, we do still have to communicate with each other, and bridging the two cultures are sign language interpreters, who sometimes have to grapple with a conflict between professional conduct and fully expressing the intent of a signer or speaker. In “Warning: Explicit Content! A Case for Profanity Education and a Collection of Strategies used by Sign Language Interpreters,” Kelly Murphy argues that explicitly discussing profanity when interpreters are training helps prepare them for these potentially awkward situations. Practice makes perfect, says Murphy, and only by cultivating the sign vocabulary for profanity through workshops and conversations with deaf mentors and practising it can interpreters begin to desensitize themselves to the discomfort they might feel about swearing.
 Deaf, with an uppercase D, refers to members of Deaf culture, who use sign language fluently and as a first language. People can be Deaf without being deaf: hearing children of deaf parents or people who can hear but can’t speak may grow up immersed in Deaf culture. Conversely, not all deaf people—such as those who lose their hearing later in life—are Deaf.
 Are people who use sign language “speakers” or “signers”? The sources I consulted seem divided. “Speak” might be appropriate because sign language can be said to have a phonology, but many organizations, including the National Association of the Deaf, seem to prefer “sign.”
Thanks to the great people who gave me insight about sign language and the Deaf community through a Twitter discussion. I haven’t asked for permission to name you, but if you’d like to be credited, I’d be happy to accommodate.