Writing 101: What Is a Colloquialism? Learn About How Colloquialisms Are Used in Literature With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 24, 2019 • 2 min read

Words change and evolve constantly through writing and conversation, creating a rich and diverse vernacular. Colloquialisms are words and expressions that become commonplace within a specific language, geographic region, or historical era. Authors use colloquialisms to give personality and authenticity to their characters.


What Is a Colloquialism?

A colloquialism is a word or expression that makes up the informal style of language that people use in casual conversation. The word is derived from the Latin “colloquium,” which means “conversation.” With repeated use, certain words and expressions take on colloquial meanings: for example, the word “wicked” means “evil”—but it can also mean “excellent.” For example, “the film was wicked.”

What Are the Differences between Colloquialism, Slang, and Jargon?

There are several different styles of informal speech, including colloquialisms, slang, and jargon. While colloquial expressions are used by people within a geographic region, slang and jargon are specific to certain groups.

  • Slang words are unique expressions created by a specific culture or social group that often gain traction and become widely used. Slang can be new words, a shortened or modified word, or words that take on a meaning other than their original definition. Some examples of slang terms are “hip,” which means trendy, and “throw shade,” which is to lob an insult at someone.
  • Jargon refers to technical lingo—words and expressions created within a specific profession or trade. Jargon is most often used in formal writing. For example, the word “affidavit” is a term specific to the legal profession, also known as legalese. “Bull market” is investment banking jargon.
  • If slang and jargon are used in language regularly outside of their subgroups, they can become colloquialisms.

What Is the Purpose of Colloquialism in Literature?

Writers use colloquial expressions to add authenticity to their work. Colloquialisms can also help with:

  • Dialogue. Recreate casual communication through colloquial dialogue can add realism to a story and its environment. In Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, for example, the colloquial street language of the characters reflect their lives on the fringe of Scottish society; an example is the phrase “git aulder,” meaning “get older.”
  • Setting. Colloquialisms can also help establish and support the time and place of a story. In Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the characters speak in a folksy, colloquial tone that represents rural Alabama during the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Characters. Colloquialisms can also help establish a character’s backstory, including age and socioeconomic background. The narrator of J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, is educated but uses expressions like “can’tcha,” “helluva time,” and “dough.” Salinger’s use of these rougher colloquialisms highlights Holden’s rebellious streak.

2 Examples of Colloquialism in Literature

Writers throughout the history of literature have used colloquialisms in different ways.

  1. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Twain’s classic story, the author uses the colloquial style of nineteenth-century America to establish the setting and develop his main character: 13-year-old Huck Finn, an undereducated boy in rural Missouri. Finn’s informal speech is rough: “And the way I lit out and shinned for the road in the dark there ain’t nobody can tell.” That’s Huck’s way of saying he got out of there and ran to the road.
  2. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. Set in New York City in the early 1900s, the novel relates the story of a love triangle that plays out among the upper classes, where colloquial phrases mimic those of European royalty, incorporating French phrases like “des quartiers excentriques.” This use of high-class colloquialisms makes readers feel isolated and disconnected from the characters: which is exactly what Wharton intended.

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