Various enterprises and personal interests, such as Man-Machine Interaction (MMI), gesture studies, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Misunderstanding Mr Tumble

Sometimes it is hard to believe how far people will go to be able to claim they were offended (or to get a headline in a newspaper). This is a story about a clown, little kids with language problems, and very protective parents. The clown is Mr Tumble, who makes television for small kids, as part of a wonderful program called Something Special which uses Makaton signs.

An example of a short Mr Tumble appearance, with speech and (makaton) signs.

Here we seem to have a group of inspired people putting together something nice on TV and on the web. I would guess it is a program that a lot of parents and kids are very happy about. Now, about a week ago there was a strange headline in the Sun: TV’s Mr Tumble in sex fumble.

The Sun: “TV favourite Mr Tumble is greeting toddlers by saying “I’m fucking you” in sign language. The CBeebies character says the gestures mean “I’m happy to see you”. But angry parents have accused the BBC of jumbling up their signals. Dad-of-one Jamie Miller, who works for the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID), was stunned when he watched Something Special with daughter Katie, five. Jamie said: “The signs for “happy” and “fucking” are quite similar but it was still an awful error to make.”… “Katie, who is learning sign language, asked what the gesture meant. I didn’t know what to tell her.”… “In British Sign Language “happy” is shown by gently brushing the palms against each other. The swear word is made by brushing the hands together between the thumb”

What a small difference in form to make a fuss over. It seems altogether hard to believe that the guy playing Mr Tumble would do this intentionally. It seems more likely that the parent saw something that he thought could be interpreted in another way than a simple greeting. Instead of simply telling his daughter the clown was signing he was happy to see her (ignoring the small difference in sign forms as long as she is still a child), he chose to make a problem out of it. Of course the BBC responded quickly by explaining the situation and denying the entire problem: The Press Association: BBC denies Mr Tumble swearing claim.

BBC spokesman: “The programme has been independently reviewed by experts – including Margaret Walker, the co-founder of Makaton – and none support the allegation that the greeting “happy to see you”, signed by presenter Justin Fletcher, could be perceived as a swear word, as The Sun alleges. CBeebies always has a Makaton expert present during recordings of Something Special, to ensure the highest professional standards.” “Justin Fletcher is recognised in the television industry and throughout the voluntary sector as someone of outstanding professionalism and dedication, and we believe that his work deserves better than this cheap and unjustified slur.”

The truth of this matter probably lies hidden at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. It seems altogether too much of a coincidence that: (a) RNID spokeswoman Kate Sidwell said: “We advised the BBC that using Makaton would cause confusion. Makaton is used more for children with learning difficulties – it is essentially a different language.”, and (b) RNID employee Jamie Miller was the one who complained about the possible confusion. Adding up has never been my strong point, but I think I can manage in this case. But let us assume that the story is reported faithfully, and that Mr Tumble’s signing was indeed a clear case of saying “I am fucking you” at least in the eyes of children who know enough British Sign Language (BSL). We then further need to suppose that the children expect Mr Tumble to sign BSL, for them to be truly vulnerable to the proposed vulgarity. For if I am watching a Bulgarian show and the word ‘godsammeklote’ happens to come by I will not assume the Bulgarian speaker meant to say what that word means in Dutch (my native language). In a way, the insistence by the RNID that the two communication systems are different languages entirely (or the one a language and the other a sign system) backfires. More on the perception of insults and vulgarity.


Cuny 2007


MPI Lecure on Metonymy in Metaphoric Gestures


  1. tavs

    there can be no mistake about the bsl sign for fucking. It is similar but importantly different from the sign for happy.

    Mr Tumble got this badly badly wrong. If you were watching a programme in english and mr tumble said ‘i’m fucking’ whilst your son or daughter watched I don’t think you’d feel this way.

    There should be more respect for the fact that sign language is a full recognised language and that the handshape for fucking means fucking and nothing else!

  2. @tavs

    1) Mr Tumble uses Makaton signs not BSL. Please try to read the post you are commenting on.
    2) If you believe that any sign or word has a single meaning that is carved in stone then you have little understanding of the nature of language. Context very often plays a role in determining meaning. That doesn’t take anything away from BSL’s linguistic or legal status.

  3. Newton

    I don’t get it. According to the Dictionary of British Sign Language the sign for fuck is totally different from happy and is the same as lemonade! I am aware that there are many signs with several meanings which arfe understood by there context or non-manual features. I don’t understand why there is a problem here. Can anyone help me understand?

  4. Francis Mahon

    Surely if someone was fucking you you wouldn’t need to know the sign language to be aware of the fact?

  5. Julia bradbury

    To the innocent, all things are innocent (as are the majority of children that the program is intended for ). There will always be some with warped minds who are looking for the sleeze. My lad,who has limited language and uses Makaton, loves this program and it helps with his signing and understanding

  6. Barry Scott

    Something Special is a programme featuring children with learning difficulties and is aimed at children with learning difficulties, so of couse Mr Tumble is going to sign in Makaton!
    The man should be knighted not ridiculed!

  7. martin meehan

    Another case of the pc brigade getting things out of propotion. If the differance between the two hand signs all the parents have to do is tell the child the happy one until the get big enough to understand the other one use a bit of common sence people

  8. @Julia Bradbury
    @Barry Scott
    @Martin Meehan
    It is somewhat odd that a blog post from 2007 is receiving three similar comments all on the same day in 2016. Could you possibly explain this interesting coincidence? To me this looks somewhat suspicious.

  9. Yvonne

    As a British Sign Language professional I have to concur that there is a strong similarity between what Mr Tumble has signed and the expletive. It is a sad case that there are so few programmes on UK television that include signs, but any that do should consult with both Makaton and BSL linguistic advisors to ensure accuracy. If a foreign spoken language presenter was being used and their pronunciation of a particular word were ‘questionable’ am sure the BBC would soon employ speech professionals to advise, avoid that term or employ a different presenter for that section.
    It is vital to respect all languages recognised as official in our country.

  10. Yvonne

    Jeroen, in my case it showed as a suggestion on Facebook after viewing the original RNID article which a friend had posted. Nothing suspicious, just scary how the Internet never forgets.

  11. Dan Thompson

    Jeroen. As happens sometimes, this old story from The Sun is being circulated on Facebook, and Facebook is suggesting your blog as related content. You may see a few more comments!

  12. Thanks for explaining the sudden surge in interest 🙂 Jeroen
    I must say that there were some scandals that made me read the post again to see if I still stand by it and I do. I would however not have written it quite as forcefully as I did back then. I am sure at least some of the offended parties were really offended. I just still think that they took offense based on a misunderstanding of the context. If you watch the show with a child who knows BSL and leave it in the middle what sort of signs are shown, then yes, the child might see the sign and there is a potential for offense. However, if you tell the child that he is not watching someone using BSL but is watching someone making other signs with other meanings, namely Makaton, then you basically erase the potential for offense. Moreover, you will have taught the child a valuable lesson about the fact that people communicate in many different ways and that things are not always what they seem. If I were the father of such a child I would take that opportunity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén