What Is a Colloquialism?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

colloquialism quote
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A colloquialism is an informal expression that is used more often in relaxed conversation than in formal speech or writing. These develop in language through years of casual communication between familiar speakers.

Colloquialisms are not "substandard or illiterate speech," says Maity Schrecengost. Rather, they are "idioms, conversational phrases, and informal speech patterns often common to a particular region or nationality. Not found everywhere, colloquialisms are words and phrases that we learn at home rather than at school," (Schrecengost 2010).

Etymology: From the Latin "colloquium", meaning "conversation"

Colloquialisms Examples

Colloquialisms can take on any form and be about anything—there is no set of rules that governs the creation of a new colloquialism. Because of this, it's almost impossible to summarize what one of these expressions might look like, so the concept is perhaps best illustrated through a series of examples. Some of these quotes comment on colloquialism in metalinguistic fashion, and some of them simply utilize the informal tools in context.

  • "Friends of the chancellor revealed that he had described Labour MPs as disappointing 'numpties,' a colloquialism meaning idiots," (Rafferty 2004).
  • "Latinas are in oppressive structures. We can fool ourselves, but we'd still be getting dumped on," (Padilla1997).
  • "Over and over, I would read her account of the turning point in her career--the night she got her first standing ovation, hours after being dumped by her fiance because she wouldn't quit acting," (Miller 2003).
  • "Anyway, the baby calf was standing right underneath its mother, just kind of walking around, and the mother cow took a 'dump' on the baby calf's head," (Chbosky 1999).
  • "Howard Wolowitz [on the phone]: Sweetie, uh, listen, I need to go, but I'll see you tonight? Bye-bye. Bye-bye. No, you hang up first. Hello?
    Raj Koothrappali: Dude, I'm glad you finally got a girlfriend, but do you have to do that lovey-dovey stuff in front of those of us who don't?
    Sheldon Cooper: Actually, he might have to. There's an economic concept known as a "positional good," in which an object is only valued by the possessor because it's not possessed by others. The term was coined in 1976 by economist Fred Hirsch to replace the more colloquial but less precise "neener-neener," (Helberg et al. 2010).

Informal Writing and Speech

Colloquialisms have always been commonplace in everyday speech, but now they are appearing more and more in writing too. "[O]ver the last generation or so writing has become more informal than it ever was before. The area of highly formal writing has shrunk considerably; it is now confined to state papers, articles in learned publications, commencement addresses (and by no means all of those), legal documents, court decisions, and prefaces to dictionaries. Other writing has become quite hospitable to so-called colloquialisms; it has become more informal, more relaxed, more familiar, more casual," (Bernstein 1995).

Advice on Using Colloquialisms in Writing

A word of advice about writing and colloquialisms from William Strunk and E.B. White: "If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better," (Strunk and White 1999).

Other Types of Casual Language

"Three types of commonly used casual language include slang, colloquialisms, and euphemisms," begins author Cindy Griffin. "Slang is an informal nonstandard vocabulary, usually made up of arbitrarily changed words. A colloquialism is a local or regional informal dialect or expression. A euphemism substitutes an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. When our language is too casual, audiences might not be able to follow the main ideas of the speech, or they become confused or uncomfortable," (Griffin 2011).

Usefulness of Colloquialisms

Casual language is perhaps most useful when talking about people, and often even more useful than traditional terms found in formal language. "Slang or colloquialisms—as the boundaries are blurred these days it is hard to tell which is which—has particularly potent force in describing mental or physical characteristics of our fellow man. Think of somebody who has got the bump, or is potty, or even randy, or saucy, or fly, or bent, or tasty (an adjective susceptible of more than one slang usage), or has become poleaxed, or flattened, or shafted, and one begins to realise how widespread such usages are," (Heffer 2011).

Dated Colloquialisms

Colloquialisms develop through time in response to changing cultures, but once established, they don't usually have a long shelf life. As people and practices continue to evolve, colloquialisms that were once representative of the time period grow irrelevant and dated; how long they last is dependent on many factors. "U.S. colloquialisms evolve slowly. 'Jag,' 'tops,' 'dude' stayed around for decades before they began to lose their freshness. But jazz lingo becomes obsolescent almost as fast as it reaches the public ear. A term of high approbation in the swing era was 'out of this world,' in the bop era it was 'gone,' and today it is 'the greatest' or 'the end.' Similarly, a daring performance was 'hot,' then 'cool,' and now is 'far out,'" ("Far-Out Words for Cats", 1954).

Sources

  • Bernstein, Theodore. The Careful Writer. Simon and Schuster, 1995.
  • Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pocket Books, 1999.
  • "Far-Out Words for Cats." Time, 8 Nov. 1954.
  • Griffin, Cindy L. Invitation to Public Speaking. Cengage Learning, 2011.
  • Heffer, Simon. Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write ... and Why It Matters. Random House, 2011.
  • Miller, K.D. "Standing Up Naked and Turning Around Very Slowly." Writers Talking. Porcupine's Quill, 2003.
  • Padilla, Felix M. The Struggle of Latino/Latina University Students: In Search of a Liberating Education. Taylor & Francis Group, 1997.
  • Rafferty, Neil. "Queen Opens a Pricey Piece of Scots History." The Sunday Times, 10 Oct. 2004.
  • Schrecengost, Maity. Writing Whizardry: 70 Mini-lessons to Teach Elaborative Writing Skills. Maupin House Publishing, 2013.
  • Strunk, William, and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Longman, 1999.
  • “The Large Hadron Collision.” Cendrowski, Mark, director. The Big Bang Theory, season 3, episode 15, CBS, 8 Feb. 2010.