You know that thing when someone is talking to you and you immediately know where they're from? This happens to me a lot. Not the predicting where they're from part, but the being easily identifiable. I say "wooder" and people immediately peg me for someone from Philadelphia.
And there are lots of idioms like "jawn" and "the Cowboys suck" that would give me away too. So what do we call these turns of phrase? Well, many of them are colloquialisms.
Today, we're going to go over colloquialisms. We'll define them, show examples in literature, film, and TV, and go over the purpose of using them in your writing.
Sound good? Let's get started.
'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'Credit: FX
Table of Contents
What Is a Colloquialism? Definition and Examples for Writers
You might already know this, but writing anything takes research. You need to know where your characters are from, and you need to find the way they talk. When you're building a story, the location and the way people talk are paramount to worldbuilding.
And that's where colloquialism comes into play.
Colloquialism (or colloquial language) is the linguistic style used for casual conversation between people of a certain region.
The word comes from the Latin “colloquium,” which means “conversation.” There are many words that take on colloquial meanings. Think about a word like "pop," which usually means a small bang. But in the Midwest of the United States, it means "soda." Or how different parts of America use subs vs. hoagies vs. submarine sandwiches vs. heroes.
Types of Colloquialisms
There are three types of colloquialisms:
- Words: There are some words that can only be understood outside a specific place and mean nothing outside of it.
- Phrases: Some turns of phrases are known only in one region and not outside of it.
- Aphorisms: There are wise sayings and proverbs that only apply to one region.
What Are the Differences between Colloquialism, Slang, and Jargon?
People have lots of different ways of saying things. These informal ways to talk cover colloquialisms, jargon, and slang. Many times, people confuse these three words because they all apply to the way people talk in a geographical location. But there are key differences between these words.
- Slang—these are words or phrases created by a specific cultural group that take on a meaning different than in other places. These can also be invented words. Some examples are "spill the tea" which means to gossip. Or "Jawn" which is a word used in Philadelphia to describe objects, people, or anything else.
- Jargon—these are words and expressions related to a specific job. They are used rarely in conversation and usually only appear in technical written works. You can say "caseload" if you're a lawyer or "AWOL" in the military.
'Saving Private Ryan'Credit: Universal Pictures
Are Slang and Jargon Colloquialisms?
Sometimes, yes. If slang and jargon are used outside of their subgroups, they can become colloquialisms. For example, many people say "buck" when they mean "dollar." That originated with settlers, and refers to paying with buckskins.
But now, we all say it, regardless of it we are hunters.
What Is the Purpose of Colloquialism in Literature, Film, and TV?
As we started to talk about earlier, colloquialisms are signifiers of a time or place. Think about how when you're watching an old movie, you hear expressions like "the cat's pajamas" or hear someone is "the bee's knees."
Writers are always trying to build worlds. And the way people talk and what they talk about are part of that.
Or maybe you're playing with the fish-out-of-water trope. You want to show how one character may not understand the world of another. You can juxtapose the way two different people talk for comedic purposes and show that they don't have an understanding of what these words mean in their new world.
In general, you also want to write specifically. When you're bringing people into a story, the more specific you can be, the more they feel like you know what you're talking about. You have an authenticity to the story that makes people buy into the beats.
Let's look at a few examples of colloquialisms to show them in action.
'Finding Nemo'Credit: Disney
Colloquialism Examples in Literature
Writing with colloquial details is crucial to your story's success. You're getting the audience to transport themselves somewhere, And see a world they may never have before. I know that happened for me when I read Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
It's the story of a young Black girl confronting the problems Black women experienced during the early 20th century, including domestic violence, incest, pedophilia, poverty, racism, and sexism.
As a cis white guy from the northern U.S., the story in this book could not be more different from my life, but the way Walker wrote, with truisms and personal expression, and details of the area, I felt like I was there with the characters.
You can read some of the colloquialisms below, including the way people talk and some expressions.
"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."
Perhaps the most famous book rife with colloquialisms is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story of young Huck and a runaway slave named Jim, who are journeying to the free state of Illinois. Huck and Jim each have distinct ways of speaking and words they use, which signify where they're from and even their economic status.
Huck's words are below, showing us his use of old-time adages and Southern sayings.
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?
Colloquialism Examples in Film and TV
Of course, there's not just colloquial language in books, it also spreads to movies and TV shows. Sometimes they even signify characters. Think about Sawyer in LOST, whose name comes from Mark Twain's sweet-talking conman in his books.
Or what about someone like Claire in Clueless, who popularized the colloquialisms used in the Valley in the 90s?
When I think about scenes that showcase characters using these kinds of terms, I always go back to O Brother Where Art Thou, when the kids tell George Clooney's character that their new father is "bona fide." And of course, I always go back to Brad Pitt's character in Snatch, who seems to only speak Pikey, which no one else can understand except the people around him.
'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'Credit: Buena Vista
Summing Up "What Is a Colloquialism? Definition and Examples for Writers"
Now that you understand the word, it's time to put it into practice. Then you develop your next character and get to work on their dialogue, think about what colloquial phrases might mean to them, and how they may use them.
You can build authenticity in your writing and capture an audience in the world.
What are some of your favorite examples of colloquialism in writing? Let us know in the comments.
Now go get writing!