Definition of Colloquialism

The word “colloquialism” comes from the Latin colloquium, which means a “conference” or “conversation.” As a literary device, colloquialism refers to the usage of informal or everyday language in literature. Colloquialisms are generally geographic in nature, in that a colloquial expression often belongs to a regional or local . They can be words, phrases, or aphorisms (see below for examples). Native speakers of a language understand and use colloquialisms without realizing it, while non-native speakers may find colloquial expressions hard to translate. This is because many colloquialisms are not literal usages of words, but instead idiomatic or metaphorical sayings. Colloquialism is similar to , but the definition of colloquialism has some key differences as described below.

Differences between Colloquialism, Slang, and Jargon

Colloquialism can be confused with slang and , since these are two other ways of conversing in informal ways. The difference is that slang words are used in specific social groups, like teenagers, whereas colloquialisms can generally be understood across age and socioeconomic barriers as long as the speakers are all from the same geographic region. Colloquialisms may use slang within them, but this is not always the case.

Similar to slang, jargon is used only by certain groups, but it often refers to words used in a particular profession. For example, the way in which lawyers speak is so specific to their profession that it is often known as “legalese.” Other professions that rely on exchanging complex information also use jargon, such as scientists, doctors, and businesspeople.

Examples of Colloquialism from Common Speech

As stated above, there are three different types of colloquialisms that we can distinguish: words, phrases, and aphorisms. Words can be colloquialism examples if they demonstrate the regional dialect of the speaker, or it they are contractions or examples of profanity. Phrases and aphorisms are colloquialisms if they aren’t literal usages, yet are widely understand within a geographical boundary.

  1. Words:
    • Regional differences: One famous colloquial difference in the United States is the way a person refers to a carbonated beverage. There are regional borders that separate the usage of the words “soda”, “pop”, “soft drink”, and “Coke” (used as a generic term and not just to refer to the brand). There are numerous differences between American English and British English, such as “truck”/“lorry”, “soccer”/“football”, and “parakeet”/“budgie”.
    • Contractions: Words such as “ain’t” and “gonna” are examples of colloquialism, as they are not used widely throughout English-speaking populations.
    • Profanity: Some words are considered profane in some dialects of English where they are not at all bad in other dialects. A good example is the word “bloody” which is a simple adjective in American English, but is a curse word in British English.
  2. Phrases:
    • Old as the hills
    • Penny-pincher
    • She’ll be right (Australian English, meaning everything will be all right)
    • Pass the buck
    • Eat my dust
  3. Aphorisms:
    • I wasn’t born yesterday.
    • There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
    • Put your money where your mouth is.
    • You’re driving me up the wall.

Significance of Colloquialism in Literature

Authors will frequently use colloquialisms to make sound more authentic. For example, a writer of a contemporary American novel would probably choose the greeting “Hey, how’s it going” rather than “How now.” They may also employ this device to situate the writing more decisively in a specific time period and/or place. When used inappropriately, colloquialisms will often stand out as jarring to the reader. Indeed, writers are cautioned away from over-using dialect, such as dropping the “g” at the end of a continuous verb to create a Southern twang, such as goin’, doin’, bein’, etc. However, when used well readers may feel the writing is very genuine. Authors may also use colloquialisms unconsciously if they are writing in a time and place they know from their own experience.

Examples of Colloquialism in Literature

Example #1

When you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

(The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger)

J. D. Salinger’s most famous book is noted for the very informal way in which the narrator, Holden Caulfield, addresses the audience. The book has been banned in numerous places over the years for its use of profanity, which is a chief example of colloquialism. There are also colloquial phrases in this excerpt such as “fix you up” and “hope to hell.”

Example #2

Thing is, as ye git aulder, this character-deficiency gig becomes mair sapping. Thir wis a time ah used tae say tae aw the teachers, bosses, dole punters, poll-tax guys, magistrates, when they telt me ah was deficient:’Hi, cool it, gadge, ah’m jist me, jist intae a different sort ay gig fae youse but, ken?’ Now though, ah’ve goat tae concede thit mibee they cats had it sussed. Ye take a healthier slapping the aulder ye git. The blows hit hame mair. It’s like yon Mike Tyson boy at the boxing, ken?

(Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh)
In his 1993 book Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh created a consistent writing to mimic the lilt of the Scottish accent. For non-speakers of the Scottish dialect, it can take a bit of time before the logic of the book’s language starts to make sense. The book even comes with a glossary of words and colloquialisms that he uses.

Example #3

BARDOLPH. Well met, Corporal Nym.
NYM. Good morrow, Lieutenant Bardolph.

(Henry V by Shakespeare)

This is a simple example of colloquialism as used by Shakespeare. Although modern readers might think that Shakespeare’s works sound extremely outdated, he was famed at the time for having a remarkable ear for the way people really talked. This example from the beginning of Act II in Shakespeare’s play Henry V shows the way in which people greeted each other in ordinary language.

Example #4

What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and it ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?

(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)

Mark Twain’s book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is renowned for its use of colloquialisms. Twain used plenty of accents, slang, and vernacular to make his characters sound like real Americans of the time. This excerpt contains the double-negative “ain’t no trouble” and the colloquial usage of “just the same.”