What Is a Colloquialism? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Colloquialism Definition


Colloquialism (kuh-LOH-kwee-uh-liz-um) is the use of informal, everyday language in writing. The word derives from the Latin colloquium, meaning “speaking together” or “conversation.” Colloquialisms often evolve from specific dialects, or language variants spoken in certain regions. Common forms of colloquialism include:

  • proverbs and aphorisms (“You only live once.”)
  • profanities (“Damn!”)
  • idiomatic expressions (“You’ve hit the nail on the head.” “She chickened out.”)
  • regional terms or phrases (“Bless your heart.”)
  • nonstandard grammar or syntax (“I ain’t done nothing!”)

In literature, authors use colloquialism in dialogue and narration to show characters speaking in a realistic way or to give a character or narrative a distinctive and entertaining voice.


Colloquialism vs. Formal Language


Think about colloquialism as the opposite of formal language. Formal language is standard in that it varies little from region to region and evolves slowly over time. For instance, formal English is recognizable whether spoken in North America or in other English-speaking countries around the world; by and large, all speakers of formal English can easily understand one another. By contrast, colloquial English changes rapidly and varies significantly across regions, time periods, and social and ethnic groups.

Although it’s usually easy to recognize when literary writing is employing formal versus colloquial language, these are not distinct categories so much as ends of a spectrum. Between formal and colloquial language is neutral language, which is neither especially official nor unofficial.

Compare these different ways of saying that you like something:

Formal English

  • “It pleases me.”
  • “I find it delightful.”

Neutral English

  • “It’s good”

Colloquial English

  • “It’s wicked good” (region: Northeastern United States)
  • “It’s my cup of tea” (region: England)
  • “O, brave!” (time period: sixteenth century)
  • “It’s bad” (social group: African American; time period: late 20th century)


Colloquialism vs. Slang and Jargon


Colloquialism and slang are types of informal language, but the terms are distinct. Slang is used by a much more particular group or subculture, such as surfers (“Gnarly waves, dude!”), and may not be widely understood by the broader culture. Colloquialism, on the other hand, is commonly used by all speakers belonging to a culture—typically defined by geography, time period, social class, and/or ethnic group.

Some see slang as a subcategory of colloquialism rather than a separate category of informal language since slang may become colloquial as it is adopted into popular culture, especially when helped along by music, literature, and other forms of media.

Jargon, on the other hand, is nonstandard language used by people in certain professions or professional groups. For example, technical terms used by lawyers, such as ad hominem and modus operandi, are considered jargon. In factor, lawyer jargon is considered a language all its own: legalese. “Management speak” (“pushing the envelope”) is another type of jargon.

Like slang, jargon can become part of the common lexicon or be used in contexts outside of its professional roots (e.g., saying “order in the court” to quiet a group of noisy people).


Appropriate Uses for Colloquialism


Colloquialism is everyday language, so it’s appropriate in most informal contexts and often used in personal means of communication such as texts, emails, social media, or letters to family and friends. It is also widely used in literature.

In literary essays and news articles, writers may use colloquialism deliberately to enrich the writing. But typically, improper English or profanities are inappropriate in professional settings. Colloquial language is rarely acceptable in business, legal, and other official contexts—especially where it could cause confusion.

Non-Literary Uses for Colloquialism

Colloquialism is a common device in advertising because its usage puts companies on level with their customers, literally suggesting that they speak the same language. Many slogans play on a colloquial expression, such as Budweiser’s famous 1999 “Whassup?” campaign.

Colloquialism is also common in pop music. In rap and hip-hop, colloquialisms drawn from regional African American Vernacular English (AAVE) lend a sense of authenticity to an artist’s storytelling. Many colloquial words and phrases originally unique to AAVE have become widely known due to their use in song lyrics, such as the word crib for house or whip for car.


How Writers Use Colloquialisms


Writers primarily use colloquialism in literature to establish character and voice. Colloquial dialogue can signal a character’s social background, level of education, and/or where they live. Colloquial language gives readers a lot of information without clunky exposition. For instance, readers could “hear” through dialogue that a character is a teenage girl from the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s.

In narrative, colloquialisms work much the same way. An author might use colloquialism in a first-person narrative to create a realistic and specific voice and deliver clues about the narrator’s background. In third-person narrative, colloquialism can indicate access to a specific character’s thoughts, imply a particular social perspective, or simply create an original and engaging narrative voice.

Colloquialism in Genre Fiction

For science fiction and fantasy authors, inventing colloquialisms is a powerful tool for delivering information about an imaginary world’s culture and society and making it feel real.

For instance, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, men describe women they want to sleep with as “pneumatic.” This tells the reader that, in the novel’s dystopian future, women are seen as machines for sexual pleasure.

British novelist Russell Hoban wrote Riddley Walker entirely in an invented colloquial English derived from present-day Britain’s working-class speech patterns.

Every 1 knows about Bad Time and what come after. Bad Time 1st and bad times after. Not many come thru it a live.

Hoban’s narrator grows up in the wake of a nuclear disaster that destroyed 20th-century civilization. Colloquialism allows Hoban to demonstrate what has happened in this world—a devastation so great that formal English and standard grammar and spelling have been lost—even though the narrator himself cannot articulate it.

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel blends contemporary colloquial British English with 16th-century colloquialisms to create a language that feels plausibly historical but is still easy to understand.

One day my brother Tom goes out fighting. As punishment, his father creeps up behind and hits him with a whatever, but heavy, and probably sharp, and then, when he falls down, almost takes out his eye, exerts himself to kick in his ribs, beats him with a plank of wood that stands ready to hand, knocks in his face so that if I were not his own sister I’d barely recognize him: and my husband says, the answer to this, Thomas, is go for a soldier.


Examples of Colloquialism in Literature


1. John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

George Little and his friend Lennie are migrant laborers in Depression-era California. They’re making their way by bus and on foot to a ranch where they hope to find work. George says:

We could just as well of rode clear to the ranch if that bastard bus driver knew what he was talkin’ about. “Jes’ a little stretch down the high,” he says. “Jes’ a little stretch.” God damn near four miles, that’s what it was! Didn’t wanta stop at the ranch gate, that’s what. Too God damn lazy to pull up. Wonder he isn’t too damn good to stop in Soledad at all. [bolded for emphasis]

George speaks the colloquial English of an American working-class man in the 1920s. He uses “of” for “have,” “says” for “said,” and frequent profanity. George also uses colloquial pronunciations, such as swallowing the end of “talking” and saying “jes’” instead of “just.”

Steinbeck chose to depict working-class life as realistically as possible to rouse readers toward social change. George’s colloquial speech makes him a believable character, which encourages readers to believe Steinbeck’s portrayal.

2. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

The Nurse is a working-class woman hired to raise Juliet. Here she remembers an occasion on which the infant Juliet threw a tantrum:

Nay, I do bear a brain. But as I said,

When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple

Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,

To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug! [bolded for emphasis]

The Nurse uses colloquial working-class expressions, such as “I do bear a brain” (“I’m not stupid”), “pretty fool,” and “dug” (breast)—an earthy, sensual language that wouldn’t be appropriate for an aristocratic character like Juliet, who speaks in an elevated, poetic manner. Shakespeare relies on the Nurse’s colloquialisms to add an element of raw physicality to Juliet’s idealistic romance—one that the teenager can’t express herself.

3. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

In the novel’s famous opening line, Salinger’s disaffected teenage narrator Holden Caulfield introduces himself:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. [bolded for emphasis]

Salinger uses the colloquial English of white American teenagers to communicate Holden’s age, background, and attitude. Importantly, Holden is an educated character but does not speak like one. His style of speech demonstrates that he is rebellious—he refuses to use the formal English he has learned at his expensive boarding school.

4. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Joyce’s novel begins with the childhood of his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. [bolded for emphasis]

Joyce’s third-person narrator uses the colloquial speech patterns of an adult talking to a child to suggest the way his infant protagonist experiences language. The device enables Joyce to create a vivid sense of a child’s perspective from within, rather than describing childhood from an adult’s point of view.

5. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Diaz’s Dominican American narrator introduces the protagonist, Oscar:

Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about—he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock. [bolded for emphasis]

Diaz uses culturally specific terms and phrases (“cats,” “fly bachatero”) to introduce the reader to the protagonist’s world: a predominantly Dominican community where boys are expected to live up to strict masculine stereotypes. By telling Oscar’s story in colloquialisms, Diaz emphasizes how much the culture and community shape Oscar’s experience and subtly highlights the moments when Oscar doesn’t meet cultural expectations.

6. Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper

Zink’s narrator, Tiff, describes spending time with her husband, a committed birdwatcher:

Birding in winter involves a lot of long car rides. (I saw Elvis a lot, so I didn’t mind spending time with Stephen on weekends.) One morning I got around to begging Stephen to tell me about himself. He turned out to be much better at talking when he was driving the car. [bolded for emphasis]

Tiff’s informal language emphasizes that she is utterly disaffected, uninterested even in her own life. This scene of bonding with her husband could be vivid and dramatic, but Tiff walls herself off from it with expressions that convey indifference.


Further Resources on Colloquialism


A Brief History of the Colloquial Title,” by Lauren Alwan (The Millions), discusses the use of colloquialism in literary titles, with many great examples.

The Goodreads list of “Popular Colloquial Books” conveys the range and depth of colloquialism’s use in contemporary literature.

The Colloquial Style in America, by Richard Bridgman, is an academic study of 20th century American writers’ use of colloquialism.

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