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Full of beans with colloquialism

Colloquialism is the use of informal words or phrases in writing or speech – Roopa Banerjee

Americans eat cookies, but people in India and the UK eat biscuits. Americans love French fries while the British prefer chips. The use of informal words or phrases in writing or speech is known as colloquialism.

The word colloquialism is derived from the Latin colloquium, translated as speaking together. As colloquialisms are informal words within specific dialects, we need to understand dialects to fully comprehend colloquialisms. A dialect is a variant of a language spoken by a specific group of people. Dialects are often regional — people in different parts of the world might speak the same language differently. An individual raised in the US will speak a different English dialect from a native of the UK or India. Different dialects are spoken within a country as well.

Several slang words and regional colloquialisms are accepted as part of the English dictionary. For instance over 900 Indian words are included in the latest Oxford English Dictionary. Words such as jugaad,dadagiri, achcha, bapu and suryanamaskar are now accepted as Indian colloquialisms in the English language. Oft-used terms such as timepass, natak and chup have also made it to the OED.

Submarine sandwiches, subs, Italian sandwiches, heroes, and hoagies are diverse words used in different parts of the US to refer to the same type of sandwich. Similarly pop, soda, and coke — are all soft drinks.

Colloquialism abounds in literature. Writers often use colloquialism in dialogue or first-person narration because it makes characters real and defines their speech. For instance, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses colloquialism to give his protagonists a distinctive regional flavour and identity. The title character, Huck Finn narrates his story using colloquial language specific to a regional dialect. He uses “allowed” as a colloquialism for said, and adjectives in a casual way — “it was rough living” and “dismal regular”. The double negatives used in “I couldn’t stand it no longer” are used as in regional dialect.

In formal English, double negatives would cancel each other out, but in informal speech, they add emphasis. Use of colloquialisms identifies Huck as a real person living in Missouri in the pre-Civil War time period in which the entire tale is set.

In William Shakespeare’s Othello, the villainous Lago tells Brabantio, Desdemona’s father: “Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God, if the devil bid you.”

Zounds was a common colloquialism in early modern English, the dialect spoken in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616). It’s an informal contraction of the phrase ‘Christ’s Wounds’, and was considered a mild swear word in Elizabethan England.

Colloquialisms usage is great for characterisation. A person’s use of colloquialisms indicates his native region, socio-economic status or ethnic background, and is often reflective of the era in which he lives. Fans of George Bernard Shaw will remember the first scene of Pygmalion which highlights Prof. Higgins’ unique capability to identify people’s background from their speech.

Exercise
UK colloquialism quiz
What do these phrases mean?

1. Have a butcher’s at this
2. It’s an absolute blinder!
3. Fine words butter no parsnips.
4. Me in me glad rags.
5. Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye.

Answers
1. Take a look at this.
2. It’s amazing.
3. Fine words don’t get the job done.
4. I’m in my finest clothes.
5. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be.

Also read: Gift your child word power!

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