In the Midwest, we have a phrase for a very particular situation. You’re in the grocery store, minding your own business. You make a quick loop around to the next aisle. Someone is right in your cart lane, and unless you stop, you’re going to collide.

Ope,” we always say, for some reason. “Excuse me.”

No one really knows what “ope” is—something between “oops” and “oh, no,” perhaps—but we do know where it comes from. And that is a fairly accurate summation of what a colloquialism is. But what are these bits of conversational shrapnel, and how can you use them to add local flavor to your dialogue and writing? Here’s what you’ll need to know.

Colloquialism Definition

The word itself comes from a Latin root, colloquium, which means conversation. With “-ism” added to the end, you might think of a colloquialism as, simply, a “conversationalism.” In other words, it’s a linguistic device particular to the way people talk. 

Put more simply, a colloquialism is a turn of phrase you might use in casual conversation, particularly in respect to specific cultures or geography. 

Colloquialism Examples

That might sound like a broad definition: Isn’t any verbal device something that can happen in a conversation? True. But colloquialisms are defined by their near-exclusive use as conversational shortcuts. To help demonstrate, let’s consider a few common examples of colloquialisms:

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “And the way I lit out and shinned for the road in the dark there ain’t nobody can tell,” writes Huck Finn, the narrator of Mark Twain’s classic. Here, phrases like “lit out” may not resonate with our 21st-century ears, but they place us in the setting Twain wants us to understand.
  • The Old Man and the Sea: “But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky,” writes Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea. The word salao—along with its surrounding context—puts us in Santiago’s Cuban fishing village while we get a sense of the backstory in just one word.
  • Be Cool: In Elmore Leonard’s novel Be Cool, he uses Hollywood-studio colloquialisms to demonstrate who the characters are simply by how they speak. “But the guy running production at Tower says they’re making the picture,” one character says. What’s Tower? Well, that’s something someone in Beverly Hills might know, even if the audience doesn’t. As a result, the dialogue is dripping with real-world authenticity.

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How to Use Colloquialisms in Writing

Use Colloquialisms to Add Flavor to Dialogue

Writers gravitate toward using dialogue to move the plot forward. But you can elevate your dialogue to a heightened level of realism. A colloquialism uses the “show-don’t tell” rule simply by choosing to have a character speak in a way that’s particular to their upbringing.

You’ll find colloquialism examples all over Delia Owens’ bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, which focuses on a protagonist who grew up almost by herself in the Carolina swamps. In fact, the title comes from a quote dripping with colloquial distinction: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

Use Colloquialisms to Bring Readers to Another World

Hemingway’s use of Cuban colloquialisms is an obvious example here. Other authors, like Margaret Atwood, use colloquial language to translate old concepts into modern adaptations. Atwood’s Hag-Seed is an updated version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for example. 

Colloquialisms have a translating effect: They can make something more or less accessible, depending on the author’s intentions. In the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess purposefully invents a language of colloquialisms to demonstrate the strange, screwed-up world of Burgess’ imagined future.

Use Colloquialisms for Comedic Effect

In the film Snatch, the dialogue is riddled with U.K.-centered colloquialisms. Nowhere is that more apparent, ironically, than in the dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. In the film, his Irish accent is so thick that even other locals can’t understand it. 

What If You’re Translating or Writing for a Global Audience?

It’s easy to take a colloquialism from your own culture for granted, especially when translating. It can be even more jarring when you’re trying to make a colloquialism work in another language. 

For example, the famous “hasta la vista” line from Terminator 2: Judgment Day wouldn’t seem quite as cool in Spanish-speaking countries, where the line is rather ordinary. So in Spanish-language translations, moviemakers apparently used the phrase “Sayonara, baby.” Except, we can assume, in Japan.

When translating colloquialisms, be aware of your own cultural norms. Ask for a fresh perspective from a third-party reader, and see if there are any particular sticking points that you never intended.

Writing Colloquially

To use colloquialisms in writing is not to separate the reader from the characters you’re quoting. It’s to make one small sliver of a character’s experience to add to the realism of the work. 

Funnily enough, it can be the little conversational differences (like “ope”!) that make people from other places seem more human. And when writing prose, you’ll also do better if your characters sound like real people: real dreams, real flaws, and real colloquialisms. 

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Written By

Dan Kenitz

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