What is Colloquial Language?

This is another word for everyday language – slang or informal expressions. These are often the hardest to translate if English isn’t your native language. Here are some examples:

  • ‘give me a hand’ = ‘assist me’ (not ‘throw your severed hand at me’)
  • ‘forget it’ =  ‘it’s not a problem’, ‘don’t worry about it’ or ‘it’s not important’ (not ‘erase your memory’)
  • ‘hey honey’ = not literally the sweet thing that bees make – though it does suggest the idea of sweetness, like ‘hey, sweetie’. Both are pet names for loved ones. ‘Pet name’ is also colloquial (‘pet’ is a much loved animal!)

The reason colloquial language doesn’t translate is because it is often a metaphor.

  • in ‘give me a hand’, hand = help;
  • ‘forget it’ = it is so unimportant it ought to be erased from memory;
  • ‘honey’ = you are sweet/delicious’

Metaphors like this are often so familiar that we don’t think of them as metaphors at all.

If you are studying literature, colloquial language in writing is where writers are trying to create the effect of informal, spoken language. You can also think of it as ‘conversational language’. Scroll down for some examples from poetry and Of Mice and Men.

Why is colloquial language sometimes so hard to understand?

Colloquial language is often a metaphor. Metaphors are based in culture, and don’t easily translate to other nationalities or time periods.

How to tell if language is Colloquial Language: quick test. Would you find it in a news article in The Times*? If not, it’s colloquial.
*obviously colloquial language may appear in ‘reported speech’

Why is it used?
  1. To create a natural, or realistic, effect in characters’ dialogue in novels and plays. It shows that they’re working class – or ordinary, or from a particular area.
  2. In poems, it’s used to create a conversational feel. This shows that the emotions are everyday, not elevated formal language.
  3. Sometimes it’s meant to be ‘easy’ to read. However, it’s often difficult. This is because colloquial language usually belongs exclusively to a particular group.

e.g. Simon Armitage uses a lot of Yorkshire colloquialisms, Steinbeck uses American, working men’s colloquialisms from the 1930s. Both are hard to understand

Examples of Colloquialisms

1. Brand Name (proper noun) > verb
e.g. ‘I’ll google it’ is a modern phrase, where the name of the company (a Proper Noun) has become a verb.

e.g. An older example is ‘I’m going to hoover the floor’. Hoover is a brand of vacuum cleaner.

e.g. You can now ‘google’ things on ‘Yahoo’ and ‘hoover’ with your ‘Dyson’.

2. Colloquial language transforms words from their original use
e.g. ‘Downed tools’ (stopped working) – ‘downed’ is a verb which has been created from the original word ‘down’.
e.g. ‘Upped and left’ (went away) – ‘upped’ is a verb which has been created from the original word ‘up’.
e.g. ‘epic’ (‘the best thing in the world’) – this is also slang.
e.g. ‘tip up’ (‘hand over’), e.g. ‘tipped up his wage’, ‘Poem’, Simon Armitage

Colloquial Expressions are often metaphors, and hard to interpret literally.
e.g. ‘I’ve got a lot on my mind’ (there’s nothing literally on top of your mind).
e.g. ‘you ain’t fit to lick [my] boots’ (you’re unworthy of me) Of Mice and Men.
e.g. ‘give you hell’ (shout at you, furiously) Of Mice and Men.
e.g. ‘handed to you on a plate’ (‘you got it easily’).

Examples from Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘Give’
‘to make a scene’ [‘scene’ normally refers to theatre or film – suggests over-dramatic behaviour]
‘I’m on the street’ [literally means – standing on the street, also, colloquially ‘homeless’]
‘I’m on my knees’ [colloquially – I’m reduced to begging for help, or in a desperate situation]
‘holding out’ [waiting for a change, or to get what you want]