A colloquialism is a common expression that is typically used in informal situations.

Easy Example of Colloquialism

  • He earns a packet.
  • (He earns a lot of money.)
  • I wasn't born yesterday.
  • (I'm not gullible.)
  • Knock yourself out.
  • (Do whatever you like or help yourself.)
A term is classified as a colloquialism when a different and often more literal expression is more common.

More about Colloquialisms

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., London, the South West) 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. Every British person would know what fags means, 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. As most Brits don't know what a Durrie is, it is 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 over the pond.

Often, a colloquialism will mean something other than its literal meaning, making it an idiom.
  • 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.)
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 Should I Care about Colloquialisms?

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, 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 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 not known, 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

  • Use colloquialisms to portray a relaxed image.
  • Colloquialisms can be viewed as unprofessional or inappropriate if used in formal situations.
  • Colloquialisms will be a piece of cake for your fellow countrymen but potential gobbledygook for an international audience.
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