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What is a Colloquialism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: May 23, 2024

A colloquialism can relate to words, expressions or phrases that aren’t used in most formal written speech, though this can vary. They may also be called slang terms, though they aren’t necessarily slang in a negative sense, since it often isn’t rude to utter a colloquial term. These words may be specific to a region, or fall into popular style based on a variety of factors.

There are plenty of colloquialism examples in American speech. Many people would understand the phrase “What’s up?” as an informal question that expresses ideas like “Hi,” or “How are you?” or “What are you doing?” Individuals wouldn’t want to begin a business letter with this phrase, however, and it would probably be out of place in a letter to an older family member as well. Part of the problem with a phrase like “What’s up,” is that it is very vague, and its informality wouldn’t be suited to most formal writing, unless someone is writing fiction where it would make sense for a character to utter such a question.

Some terms and phrases come directly from the influence of a culture on language. For instance, texting has resulted in a number of abbreviated terms that are entering common usage. “OMG,” may be understood as “Oh My God,” and individuals may hear people, especially younger ones, utter the letters as much as they might say the whole phrase.

While Americans might easily understand what “OMG” means, they might have more trouble understanding certain words that are used in different regions of the US. Sometimes, a term takes on a specific usage that is tied to region and may not be easily recognizable elsewhere; these terms are occasionally called regionalisms. One of the most famous examples is how different regions of the US describe carbonated beverages: in some regions it is “pop,” while in others, it's “soda.”

Occasionally, pronunciation creates colloquial phrases. For instance, the term “creek” might be written or spoken as “crick” in certain parts of the US. This is not to be confused with the colloquialism where person has a “crick in the neck.”

Individuals may notice use of colloquial phrases even more profoundly if they speak American English and travel to someplace like Australia, where a new girl might be called a “nice Sheila," which could leave her grinning like a shot fox — in other words very happy. Moreover, someone might be called to babysit ankle biters (kids) on the trip. Visitors should just remember not to yabber too often (talk a lot), and not skite (boast) when meeting new people.

Even in a person's primarily language, the occasional colloquialism may be challenging to understand, but it can be much more difficult for people learning a new language. Plenty of colloquial words and phrases can make new language learners frustrated. This is particularly the case when a word is used in a way that is quite different from the dictionary definition.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon154421 — On Feb 20, 2011

They definitely are analogies, but they're also colloquialisms. "Analogy" is literary terminology.

By definition, a colloquialism is simply an informal phrase or word that is widely used in a region or country, be it an analogy, simile, metaphor, or simply a word/abbreviation (i.e. OK, okay, cool, What's up?, etc.). You're comparing apples to oranges.

By anon125267 — On Nov 08, 2010

"slower than molasses in January" and "knee high to a grasshopper" are analogies.

By StreamFinder — On Jul 30, 2010

I always thought some of the older British colloquialisms were interesting -- for instance, calling a really foggy night a "pea-souper".

The only other American one I could think of that hadn't been mentioned here is to say that something is "slower than molasses in January".

By LittleMan — On Jul 30, 2010

Those are some great examples of colloquialisms. One funny one I heard from Cantonese is to call going to the bathroom "paying the water bill".

By closerfan12 — On Jul 30, 2010

There is a lot of colloquial language in Southern American speaking as well.

For instance, if someone is very busy, they could say they are "covered up".

Another one is to talk about children being "knee high to a grasshopper" particularly when they are very young.

One thing is important to remember about Southern colloquialisms though, is that despite the popularity of the Jeff Foxworthy-style colloquialism lists, many people do speak in a pretty average way.

Oftentimes the only difference is a slightly more picturesque style of speech.

By Crispety — On Jul 21, 2010

I just want to add that in the United Kingdom a common colloquialism for an apartment is to say a “Flat” while in the United States a common colloquialism for an apartment could be a “Pad” or “Digs”, such as in the phrase bachelor pad or getting new digs to mean an apartment.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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