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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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