Slang, Idioms and Colloquialisms – What’s the Dealio?

We recently reviewed The Goldfinch for our monthly suggested book club and I was unhappy with Donna Tartt for choosing English colloquial terms and idioms in her book when it was obvious it should not be there. Not to nit- pick, I loved The Goldfinch except where she put the idioms in.

It got me thinking about the impact of slang, idioms and colloquialisms in books and how important it is to use it properly.

Using the correct usage of an expression, language, dialect or a particular way of speaking for people can make the book and its characters realistic and believable.

Using idioms not common to a particular country just makes the author a show off and will frustrate the reader.

Not everyone will know what the difference between slang, idioms and colloquialism. Writers and word buffs may know the following terms but for those that are a little rusty or don’t know, I will explain the terms.

What is slang?

Slang is a word or an expression that is very informal and is common in speech and is specific to the context and a particular group of people. These words and expressions are not part of standard vocabulary or language.

For example, we may say “I’m shattered” meaning I am tired to the point of exhaustion. This slang is commonly known and has not changed its meaning.

Slang can change its meaning and acquire new meaning with time. Take the word “busted” which used to mean broke for the baby boomers, then it changed to mean being caught doing something you’re not supposed to. Now, when you say someone is busted it means they are ugly.

What are idioms?

Idioms are words or expressions that convey a meaning but not in the literal sense. Idioms are also the dialect or jargon used by a certain group of people that have something in common.

For example:

  • the English may say “it’s raining cats and dogs” to refer to raining heavily.
  • the Irish would say “it’s throwing cobblers knives” to say heavy rain.
  • In Norway, it’s expressed as “it’s raining female trolls.
  • In Africa “it’s raining old women with clubs”!!!

What are colloquialisms?

Colloquialisms are words or expressions characteristically used in every day conversation rather than formal speech or writing.

It is different to slang in that slang words are used by a particular set of people such as teenagers. Colloquial language can include slang but is mainly contraction of informal words and phrases peculiar to the native person.

For example, one would say “she’s out” rather than the formal speech “she is not at home”.


As writers or readers it’s handy to know the lingo and when to use it appropriately. Some words are common and well known but some are also new to me. It’s always fun to learn a new word 🙂

The words below and its meaning are from The Thesaurus of Slang by Esther Lewin and Albert E. Lewin. I have picked a handful that I liked from the U section.

Undercover adjective

Creep (mission), tref, triff, under wraps, hush-hush, doggo, incog, q.t., on the q.t.  on the quiet, in a hole-and-corner way, in holes and corners, wildcat.


Underling noun

Peon, serf, slave, girl Friday, gofer, dweeb, yes-man, stooge, running dog, low man on the totem pole, second fiddle, second string, third string, flunky, spear carrier, second banana.


Undesirable Person  noun

Creep, dork, rat, wrongo, drip, stinkpot, shit, shithead, sleaze, sleazeball, slime bucket, slime bucket, maggot, turkey, jerk, fink, gross, loser, louse, lousy, meatball, nerd, schmo, shmoe, weirdo, goon, base case of the uglies, banana, out, out of it, dumb cluck, dummy, mince, mole, nothing, simp, spastic, weenie, wimp, cotton picker, dipstick, arrowhead, for the birds, twerp, yo-yo, zombie, corpse, droop, herkle, prune, specimen, roach, toad, phrog, potato digger, won’t give on the time of day,  gives one a pain, gives one a pain in the neck, gives one a pain in the ass, gripes one’s ass, wallflower, can’t see one for dust, ho dad, ho daddy, funky, Joe Sad.


Undisguised adjective

Barefaced, plain as the nose on one’s face, under one’s nose, big as life, out in the open, open and shut, if it were a snake it would bite you.


The list of an undesirable person is long and there are perhaps more. Can you think of other words that are not included in this list? Do you have a good example to share? What’s your favorite slang term?


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8 thoughts on “Slang, Idioms and Colloquialisms – What’s the Dealio?

  1. Dialogue and word choice can make or break characters and settings. I agree with you that it is terrible when used poorly, but it’s wonderful when used in the right place.

    Jargon for the crusty old guy’s at the space station make them more believable.

    The fantastic names the Vampire Lord has for her ceremonies can add a sense of age to an otherwise modern tale.

    I’m excited for my next book with a character from another land. She’s not going to understand sarcasm or idioms. It’s going to be a wonderful source of humor.

    1. Hi Elliott,
      Thanks for your comments on slang, idioms and colloquialisms.

      I am glad you realize the importance of keeping readers happy with the correct use of slang and idioms. I like books that I find the characters to be believable and will like the author for using words that reflect that.

      It sounds like your new book will be funny. Looking forward to checking it out 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by at Arlene’e Book Club!

  2. Hi, Dinh – it’s that geyzer from the UK. How are you?

    This article is what the doctor ordered for anyone who wants to use instant global communications, chatrooms, blogs, etc.

    I’ve had to learn a whole new way of writing so that a heavy Southern UK dialect is globally understandable and people don’t just say “Huh?” and miss the point of the text.

    It can be a nightmare and mostly we tend to learn as we go – that’s why this article will help – and it’s a very good reminder for me.

    Catch you very soon.

    1. Hi Andre!
      It’s so nice to hear from you. We’ve missed your cheeky personality around here and so glad you’re back and in full force.

      Communication involves people understanding each other and it’s a shame that you had to water down your heavy south UK dialect to be understood. I love that you have your uniqueness. Variety is the spice of life they say, and yours is very spicy (in a good way).

      Keep well my friend 🙂

  3. Slang, idioms and colloquialism…you make it sound easy to understand the difference. All that matters is that we understand each other.

    I guess with the slang not everyone is going to get it. I am definitely out of date and don’t use or know any of those new slang words that the younger crowd use.

    1. Hi Susan,
      thanks for your comments!

      I don’t use too much slang used by the younger generation either (I sound old!) but I do try to semi- keep up with it as it’s a great way to be able to speak and understand about what’s going on.

      Thanks for your compliment.

  4. You caught me! I use the slang “busted” more often than I realized. I wasn’t aware that I’d used it until by son pointed it out to me. Huh? He’s right! Funny how slangs become such an intricate part of our vernacular that we (meaning me) don’t even realize it. This is a great refresher post on the subtle distinction between the three: slang, idioms and colloquialisms. 🙂

    1. Hi Lonna,
      thanks for your valuable input.

      Slang, idioms and colloquialisms are all so similar that I have tended to bunch it together and use them like synonyms. Having to think and write about this subject has given me a refresher course as well!

      Slang is constantly changing especially for the teenagers that when I hear it from them I actually feel old. It’s funny how certain words can date us! By my records, I feel like a dinosaur when I am not sure exactly what the general gist of the word means 🙁

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