What Is a Colloquialism?

Definition of "Colloquialism"

A colloquialism is a familiar expression used mostly in informal speech. A colloquialism is usually acceptable in everyday conversation but not in formal writing. For example:
  • It's five clicks to the border.
  • ("Five clicks" is a colloquialism. It means 5km.)
  • That was sick!
  • ("Sick" is a colloquialism. It means brilliant.)

Formal Definition

A colloquialism is a word or phrase that is not formal or literary and is used in ordinary or familiar conversation. (Oxford Dictionary)

Table of Contents

  • Easy Examples of Colloquialisms
  • The Difference between Colloquialisms and Slang and Jargon
  • Colloquialisms Can Be Idioms
  • What Is Colloquial Language?
  • Why Colloquialisms Are Important
  • Test Time!
colloquialism examples
When a colloquialism means something other than its literal meaning, it is also classified as an idiom.
  • You're a fruitcake.
  • (This is a colloquialism. It means "You are crazy." As the words are not literal, it is also an idiom.)

Easy Examples of Colloquialisms

Here are some examples of colloquialisms:
  • Wad
  • (a lot of money)
  • Coke
  • (cocaine)
  • The old geezer had a shooter pointing at me.
  • (The old man had a gun pointing at me.)
  • I wasn't born yesterday.
  • (I'm not gullible.)
    (This is an idiom. The words mean something other than their literal meaning.)
  • He earns a packet.
  • (He earns a lot of money.)
  • Knock yourself out.
  • (Do whatever you like or help yourself.)

The Difference between Colloquialisms and Slang and Jargon

A colloquialism will be understood by nearly all of your fellow countrymen. This differentiates colloquialisms from slang and jargon, which refer to words used in specific regions (e.g., New York, the South West England) or in certain groups (e.g., the police, teenagers).

Slang and jargon can often hamper understanding, but a colloquialism won't. A colloquialism will, however, tell your readers that you're being informal. Let's look at some words for cigarettes:
  • Fags
  • (Fags is a colloquialism in the UK. Every British person would know that fags means cigarettes, but they would only use fags in an informal setting.)
  • Snout
  • (Snout is a word used by prisoners. It is an example of jargon as opposed to a colloquialism. Not everyone would know what snout means. Of interest, snout derives from the days when tobacco (known as snuff) was snorted through the nose.)
  • Durrie
  • (Durrie is used by Australians. Outside Australia, most people don't know what a Durrie is, making it an example of regional slang (or a regionalism) as opposed to a colloquialism. Of interest, Durrie is short for "Bull Durham," which was an old brand of rolling tobacco. As all Australians know what a Durrie is, Durrie is a colloquialism in Australia.)
Of note, fags is a colloquialism in America, but it doesn't mean cigarettes. The British term "to bum a fag [to borrow a cigarette]" means something completely different in the US.

Colloquialisms Can Be Idioms

Often, a colloquialism will mean something other than its literal meaning, making it an idiom. For example:
  • Are you pulling my leg?
  • (To pull someone's leg is a colloquialism that means To play a joke on someone. As it means something other than its literal meaning, it is also an idiom.)
  • I can't wrap my head around the concept.
  • (To wrap your head around something is a colloquialism that means To understand something. It is also an idiom.)

What Is Colloquial Language?

The term colloquial language, rather unhelpfully, refers to ordinary natural language. Colloquial language may contain some colloquialisms but not necessarily. The term is used more to describe what the text doesn't contain (e.g., difficult or specialist words) rather than what it does.

Why Colloquialisms Are Important

Using colloquialisms can be useful if you want to portray a relaxed image (either for yourself in a work scenario or for a character in your story). Bear in mind though that using colloquialisms in formal correspondence could be viewed as unprofessional or inappropriate.

Remember that many colloquialisms have nothing to do with their literal meanings, and, given how common some colloquialisms are, this can be easily forgotten by native speakers.

Colloquialisms with non-literal meanings are often not understood by non-native speakers (who probably won't be helped by a dictionary).
  • Jacque's proposal does not ring a bell.
  • (This means "I do not believe I have seen Jacque's proposal before" but if the term were unknown, it could easily be construed as meaning "Jacque's proposal doesn't make the grade," which, let's face it, is a better fit for the literal words.)
Therefore, when communicating internationally, raise your alertness for colloquialisms and avoid them.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.