Colloquialisms are elements of speech commonly used and understood in a particular region or geography.
Unlike slang and jargon, they are not limited to people in specific age groups (teens, college students), professions (doctors, engineers), or culture (theater, military).
People in the United States often use words and phrases peculiar to their specific region.
- “Soda” (East, West), “pop” (Midwest), “coke” (South), and “tonic” (New England), all refer to a sweetened, sparkling, nonalcoholic beverage.
- Depending on where you live, you put either “jimmies” (Northeast) or “sprinkles” (everywhere else) on your ice cream.
- Athletic shoes are “sneakers” (East, Northeast), “gym shoes” (Midwest), or “tennis shoes” (South, Central, West).
Sometimes the word stays the same, but the region determines pronunciation:
- Aunt: awwnt (Northeast); ant (everywhere else)
- Caramel: car-a-mel (Northeast, Southeast); car-mel (everywhere else)
- Pecan: pea-CAHN (most of US); pick-AHN (South); PEA-cahn (East)
Colloquialisms include phrases as well as words. Colloquial phrases are called idioms.
Here are some examples of common idioms:
- A braggart may be “all hat and no cattle.”
- An impulsive person “shoots from the hip.”
- A toddler is “knee high to a grasshopper.”
- Disbelief can be found “in a pig’s eye.”
- Scarcity may be measured in “hen’s teeth.”
Writing Dialect and Colloquialisms
For writers, colloquial speech is a key element of lifelike, realistic character development that can anchor a story in time and place. Sometimes, the way a character speaks may be one of their identifying qualities.
Examples of Colloquialisms in Literature
Below are several examples of colloquialisms that can be found in famous works on literature:
1. The Yorkshire vernacular in Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë captured the Yorkshire vernacular in Wuthering Heights. Here the protagonist Mr. Lockwood knocks loudly on the farmhouse door, seeking refuge from a snowstorm:
Vinegar-faced Joseph projected his head from a round window of the barn.
‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
‘Nor-ne me! I’ll hae no hend wi’t,’ muttered the head, vanishing.
2. Southwestern Missouri language in Huck Finn
Mark Twain caught the sound of southwestern Missouri in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Here’s Huck’s recollection of encountering his cruel and alcoholic “Pap” when he returned home one evening:
I had shut the door to. Then I turned around, and there he was. I used to be scared of him all the time, he tanned me so much. I reckoned I was scared now, too; but in a minute I see I was mistaken. That is, after the first jolt, as you may say, when my breath sort of hitched—he being so unexpected; but right away after, I see I warn’t scared of him worth bothering about.
3. The urban tone in Push
Sapphire channeled Claireece Precious Jones’s urban voice in the 1987 novel Push.
I am walking down the hall from homeroom to first period maff. Why they put some shit like maff first period I do not know. Maybe to gone ‘n git it over with. I actually don’t mind maff as much as I had thought I would. I jus’ fall in Mr Wicher’s class sit down. We don’t have assigned seats in Mr Wicher’s class, we can sit anywhere we want. I sit in the same seat everyday, in the back, last row, next to the door. Even though I know that back door be locked. I don’t say nuffin’ to him. He don’t say nuffin’ to me, now.
4. Irish vernacular in Pat of Silver Bush
One of the main characters in Pat of Silver Bush is the housekeeper Judy Plum, who had been with the Gardiner family over several generations. Hailing from Ireland, she speaks with a clear Irish voice:
“Oh, oh, is it Aunt Edith?” sniffed Judy. “And it was me fine Edith that dragged her in and blew it all afore Brian and his fine lady wife, ye’re telling me? Sure it was like her. It’s a pity a liddle thing like that cudn’t av been hushed up in the fam’ly. And to punish the tinder-hearted cratur so cruel! Ye ralely ain’t wise, Long Alec. A bit av a tongue-lashing might av been all right but to kape on torturing the poor jewel for a wake and her that fond av ye all! It’s telling ye to yer face, I am Long Alec, ye don’t deserve such a daughter.”
Montgomery writes some of her narrative passages to include a word or two of the Irish colloquial tongue, such as “liddle,” to show a glimpse into Judy’s thoughts.
5. The Southern tongue in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
Cassie Logan, the narrator of the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its sequels, speaks with an obvious African-American-Southern voice. Notice, though, that only the dialogue shows this tone. The author wrote all the narratives in a non-colloquial voice.
“Ah, Big Ma, I ain’t gonna fall,” I scoffed, then climbed onto the next strong spike and reached for a fibrous puff at the top of a tall cotton stalk.
“You sho’ better not fall, girl,” grumbled Big Ma. “Sometimes I wish we had more low cotton like down ‘round Vicksburg. I don’t like y’all children climbin’ them things.” She looked around, her hand on her hip.
6. Southern vernacular in To Kill a Mockingbird
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Calpurnia, the African-American housekeeper of the Southern Finch family, brings her charges Scout and Jem to her home church, where she meets and talks with other African-Americans.
I felt Calpurnia’s hand dig into my shoulder. “What you want, Lula?” she asked, in tones I had never heard her use. She spoke quietly, contemptuously.
“I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.”
“They’s my comp’ny,” said Calpurnia. Again I though her voice strange: she was talking like the rest of them.
“Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week.”
Later in the same scene, we hear Calpurnia speaking as follows:
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ‘em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
Colloquialisms give characters an authentic voice and unique personality. Paying attention to regional dialects, accents, phrases, and idioms add realistic depth to your writing and draw the reader further into your story.
Always use colloquialisms to enhance your writing, and be careful not confuse or tax your readers. One way to do this is to make them “sound” right. A New Yorker wouldn’t say “y’all,” and a Southerner wouldn’t say “fuhggeddaboudit.” Dialect and idiom should serve to increase understanding of the character and add to the overall tone of the text.
As George Burns said, “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Do you have a favorite example of colloquialisms from literature or film? Share them in the comments below!
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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.