What Is a Colloquialism?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

colloquialism quote
Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in 12 Asian Countries by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conway (Adams Media, 2007).  Illustration by Claire Cohen. © 2018 ThoughtCo.

An informal expression that is more often used in casual conversation than in formal speech or writing.

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" (Writing Whizardry, 2010).

From the Latin, "conversation"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Friends of the chancellor revealed that he had described Labour MPs as disappointing 'numpties,' a colloquialism meaning idiots."
    (Neil Rafferty, "Queen Opens a Pricey Piece of Scots History." The Sunday Times, Oct. 10, 2004)
  • "Latinas are in oppressive structures. We can fool ourselves, but we'd still be getting dumped on."
    (Felix M. Padilla, The Struggle of Latino/Latina University Students. Psychology Press, 1997)
  • "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."
    (K.D. Miller, "Standing Up Naked and Turning Around Very Slowly." Writers Talking, ed. by John Metcalf and Claire Wilkshire. Porcupine's Quill, 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."
    (Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pocket Books, 1999)
  • Informal Writing and Speech
    "[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."
    (Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer. Simon & Schuster, 1995)
    "Three types of commonly used casual language include slang, colloquialisms, and euphemisms. 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."
    (Cindy L. Griffin, Invitation to Public Speaking, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2009)
  • Advice on Using Colloquialisms in Writing
    "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."
    (William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Longman, 1999)
  • The Force of Colloquialisms
    "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."
    (Simon Heffer, Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write . . . and Why It Matters. Random House, 2011)
  • Dated Colloquialisms (1950s)
    "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." Time magazine, Nov. 8, 1954)
  • The Lighter Side of ColloquialismsHoward 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."
    (Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, and Jim Parsons in "The Large Hadron Collision." The Big Bang Theory, 2010)