Definition of Colloquialism
Colloquial language is language that is informal and conversational. A colloquialism is a word or expression that is commonplace within a specific language, geographic region, or historical era. Colloquialisms are useful in many ways as literary devices. They can provide personality and authenticity to characters and dialogue in a literary work. Colloquialisms can also indicate the setting of a literary work in the context of time and place by establishing a historical era or geographic area.
For example, Mark Twain’s story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is filled with colloquial language from the nineteenth century American West:
There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Greeley, in the winter of ’49 – or maybe it was the spring of ’50 – I don’t recollect exactly, some how, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume wasn’t finished when he first come to the camp; but anyway, he was the curiosest man about always betting on anything that turned up you ever see, if he could get anybody to bet on the other side, and if he couldn’t he’d change sides – any way that suited the other man would suit him – any way just so’s he got a bet, he was satisfied.
Mark Twain’s use of colloquialisms such as “feller” and “so’s” is effective in that it establishes a casual closeness between the narrator and the reader through informal and conversational narration. This intimacy creates a sense of authenticity to the narrator’s story, and allows the reader a sense of “real time” participation in the narrative.
Common Examples of Colloquialism in Everyday Speech
Depending on a person’s demographic, they may use colloquialisms in conversation that are a reflection of their regional or even generational expression. Here are some common examples of colloquialism in everyday speech:
- I’m fixin’ to go to the park.
- Ope, I didn’t mean to bump into you.
- Do you see that owl over yonder?
- My Friend is wicked smart.
- Am I excited for the party? You betcha!
- If you’re thirsty, get you some water.
- Does she live in New York City? No, she lives upstate.
- We have an extra freezer down cellar.
- I’m from Los Angeles, and a SoCal girl.
- Can you get some milk from the ice box?
Examples of Colloquialism for Everyday Items
People often use colloquialisms, understood by others within their demographic, to refer to things in a unique way. However, these colloquialisms may not be understood by people outside their demographic or who are unfamiliar with the particular reference or meaning of the word. Occasionally, this can cause confusion in communication, but overall these colloquial words reflect variety within language and colorful expression.
Here are some examples of colloquialism for everyday items:
- pop (soft drink, Coca-Cola)
- buggy (shopping cart)
- queue (line of people)
- nappies (diapers)
- sweeper (vacuum)
- hot-dish (casserole)
- klick (kilometer)
- runners (sneakers, running shoes)
- jimmies (sprinkles)
- crick (creek)
- bubbler (water fountain)
- lift (elevator)
- clicker (remote control)
- rotary (traffic circle or roundabout)
- binky (pacifier)
Examples of Colloquialisms for People
Colloquialisms take root in different cultural areas in addition to geographic regions, and this is often demonstrated through colloquial terms of endearment for significant relatives, friends, lovers, and other relationships. Here are some examples of colloquialisms for people:
- memaw (grandmother)
- papaw (grandfather)
- kinfolk (blood relatives)
- bestie (best friend)
- y’all (you all)
- fam (family or group of close friends)
- boo (significant other)
- brah (brother or close friend)
- cher (dear or beloved)
- kama’aina (longtime resident of Hawaii)
- newbie (a newcomer or someone inexperienced)
Difference Between Colloquialism, Jargon, and Slang
Colloquialism, jargon, and slang are all types of informal speech. However, there are differences between them in terms of their purpose and origin of expression. Colloquialisms are typically used as expressions in a particular geographic region, whereas jargon and slang are usually particular to specific groups.
For example, jargon is a synonym for technical language that is associated with a specific profession or job and the formal communication within that specialty or field of that work. The military, medical community, and other trades are likely to utilize jargon among other members of their profession. However, unlike colloquialisms, jargon doesn’t reflect a particular region or time period.
Slang, on the other hand, generally refers to unique expressions created by social groups or subcultures that become widely used and are not confined to a specific region. These expressions can be newly created or derivatives of existing words. Slang words are often used to convey meaning that is different than their original definition. “Salty,” for example, has taken on the meaning to describe someone who appears bitter or angry. Slang words are often overused when they first catch on and tend to dwindle in popularity over time, unlike colloquialisms which tend to continue in use within geographic areas.
Examples of Colloquialism in Literature
Writers often look for words or expressions that are intriguing and meaningful to readers. This pays tribute to changing and evolving language as well as reflecting diversity in vocabulary and diction. Colloquialism is an effective literary device in creating authentic characters and dialogue as well as establishing elements of a story’s setting. Even if a reader is unfamiliar with a colloquial word or phrase, they can appreciate its incorporation in a literary work and potentially understand its meaning through context.
Here are some examples of colloquialism in literary works:
Example 1: The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up the flowers, wind, water, a big rock.
Walker’s use of informal, conversational language in her novel helps to establish the geographical setting of the story and provides a sense of realism for the reader. Shug’s character’s reference to “box of grits” and her casual phrasing “but he ain’t” establish that she is from the region of the American Deep South. This colloquial language, in turn, gives her character an authenticity through her diction. This also adds an element of realism for the reader in that her dialogue with Celie is natural and uncontrived.
This passage is also an example of the careful balance achieved by Walker in her use of colloquialism as a literary device in her novel. If writers are not judicious in how they use colloquial language in their literary works, the effect can be overwhelming or tedious for the reader. In addition, overuse of colloquialisms can make a character appear stereotypical or one-dimensional. In the case of this passage, Shug’s character remains genuine and believable in her informal expression. Yet the substance of what she says is valuable and meaningful within the context of the novel and for the reader as well.
Example 2: The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.
Salinger cleverly utilizes colloquial language as a literary device in this passage to reveal the nature of Holden Caulfield’s character and his feelings as an outsider among his own social class and peer group. During Holden’s period of limbo between getting kicked out of prep school and facing his parents, he invites his friend Sally Hayes on a date. Sally uses the word “grand,” ostensibly to sound sophisticated and elite. Holden’s reaction to Sally’s word choice is a reaction to who she is as a person as well and the upper-middle social class to which she belongs.
Holden’s colloquial response, that he “could puke” every time he hears the word grand, is the opposite in word choice to what Sally would likely say. Salinger utilizes this colloquial device in this instance to illustrate that Holden’s character is aware of the apparent phoniness and hypocrisy of people like Sally. His coarse phrasing is a rebellious response to Sally’s word choice. In addition, it reveals to the reader that Holden does not want to take part in a similar “phony” representation of himself. Holden is trying to be authentic, to himself and the reader, which ironically results in him feeling like an outsider.
Example 3: A Study of Reading Habits (Philip Larkin)
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
As a literary form, poetry traditionally features formal, expressive, and elevated language. In this stanza of Larkin’s poem, the poet uses informal language to create meaning and imagery for the reader. Colloquialisms such as “keep cool,” “right hook,” and “dirty dogs” add an element of color to the language of this poem. In addition, this potentially allows the reader to more closely identify with the poet and his experiences.
Larkin’s poem is an unusual commentary on and inversion of the convention that a “bookish” person is less likely to be confrontational or physically aggressive. However, when the poet states that he can “deal out the old right hook,” this colloquialism indicates that the poet is comfortable and even adept at fist fighting. This presents an interesting subject matter for a poem and a unique poetic image that most readers would not expect. In addition, Larkin’s use of colloquialism as a literary device indicates that poetry can be meaningful and impactful for readers without relying on formal, elevated language.