10 Colloquial Terms and Their Meanings

By Mark Nichol

Why is there a taint surrounding ain’t? Why do editors get ornery or riled, or have conniptions or raise a ruckus, if writers try to use these and other words?

The ebb and flow of the English language’s vocabulary is caused by competing crosscurrents. Neologisms come in with each tide, some of them washing ashore and others drifting back out to sea. But pronouncements from self-appointed experts and tacit disapproval by the self-selected better classes can also result in the relegation of certain terms and idioms to the realm of substandard or nonstandard usage. Here are ten words that, at least in terms of one sense, have been demoted by an association with rural dialect.

1. Ain’t: Once a fully legitimate contraction of “am not” employed at least in familiar conversation by speakers of all social classes, ain’t came to be identified with less well-educated people, and in the United States specifically with poor rural dwellers. It’s unfortunate that in writing, its use is restricted to humorous emphasis or idiomatic expressions (“Say it ain’t so!”).

2. Allow: The sense of allow meaning “concede” or “recognize” has been relegated to obscurity; seldom is this usage employed except in faux-rural contexts.

3. Conniption: This word for an emotional fit, usually appearing in plural form (“having conniptions”), is still employed occasionally in a jocular sense. It was first attested almost two hundred years ago, but its origin is obscure, though it’s possibly a corruption of corruption, which once had a connotation of anger, or might be derived from a dialectal form of captious (“fallacious”).

4. Fetch: Fetch has a colloquial air about it, and it’s unfortunate that the word lacks respectability, because it is more vivid and thorough a term than get (“Could you fetch that for me?”), and more compact than, for example, “Could you go over there and bring that back for me?” It survives in one formal sense, however: far-fetched (originally, “brought from afar,” but used figuratively for most of its centuries-long life span).

5. Ornery: This contraction of ordinary, influenced by the latter word’s less common senses of “coarse” and “ugly,” developed a connotation of cantankerous or mean behavior. Today, it’s used only in a humorous or scornful sense.

6. Reckon: The sense of reckon that means “suppose” (“I reckon I ought to get home”) is one of the most high-profile examples of stereotypical rural dialect, but it’s absent from formal usage.

7. Rile: This dialectal variant of roil, in the sense of “stir up,” is used informally to describe irritation or anger.

8. Ruckus: Ruckus, probably a mash-up of ruction (“disturbance”) and rumpus (“boisterous activity”) — themselves both dialectal terms — is now used only light-heartedly.

9. Spell: The sense of spell that means “an indefinite period of time,” related to the use of the word to mean “substitute,” is confined to rural dialect or affectation of such usage.

10. Yonder: This formerly standard term meaning “over there” is now known only in rural dialect (or spoofing of it) or in a poetic sense.

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17 Responses to “10 Colloquial Terms and Their Meanings”

  • Lara George

    The use of “Ain’t” in american english is sometimes confusing eg: I ain’t doing nothing. This is a bit informal though and is very common among blacks

  • Jen

    I love this list. I would add: cross and scowl, as in “when I’m cross, I often scowl.” Beverly Cleary used both words to great effect in her Ramona book series.

  • Dale A. Wood

    You have made a stark omission:
    “Fetch” is a perfectly-good word, and an essential one, in technical English and especially in computer engineering, a branch of electronics engineering.

    “Fetch” has to do with the storing and retrieving data from the memory units of computers. If the “fetch cycles” of your computer does not work, then your computer will not work at all.

    Putting data into computer memory is called the “store cycle”, and then getting items of data back from computer memory is called the “fetch cycle” or simply “fetching”.

    To me, it is still amazing that people use computers and the Internet, but they do not know anything about them and how they work. Actually, before being allowed to use the Internet, I think that people ought to be required to take and pass a written test on how computers and the Internet work — just like taking the test to get a driver’s license. This would keep a lot of riff – raff off the Internet, including those for whom every other word that they say or write is a dirty word.
    D.A.W.

  • Lisa Jey Davis

    I use “allow” all the time, and see it all the time. Case in point: the comment by Dale Wood… “before being allowed to use the Internet.” Not sure where you came up with that one, but the others are great. I actually use them (though mostly as you state their use) and am very familiar with them…

  • Dale A. Wood

    Another use of the word “fetch” via its present participle “fetching”.

    For example:
    1. The new Miss USA, Mary Josephine Walker, is a tall, fetching redhead from State of Washington. She was born and raised in Walla Walla, and she is now a student at Western Washington University.

    2. Have you ever seen such a fetching redhead as that one in your whole life?
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Lisa Jey Davis:
    The meaning of the word “allow” that the author referred to is a different one. Its use goes like this:

    1. I’ll allow that Spike is the ugliest dog that anyone has ever seen, but he surely is loyal friend and a good watchdog.

    2. We’ll allow that “D.T.” is a mogul of real estate, but how is it that he continually says such dumb things?

    This is quite different from the use of “allow” to mean “to give permission”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Lisa Jey Davis:
    “Not sure where you came up with that one…”

    I am guessing that the “you” refers to the author of the article, and not to myself, Dale A. Wood.

    At first, I thought that you didn’t like my idea of “Internet licenses”.
    I know that these will never happen, but sometimes some wishful thinking is nice!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Maybe it is because I am an electronics engineer, but I use “fetch” routinely in a lot of circumstances. For example.

    Guest: Could I have something to drink?
    Me: Sure. I will fetch you a drink right now. What would you like to have? Water, Diet Coke, orange soda, lemonade?

    Friend: I need some medicine for this headache that I have.
    Me: I will go to the drugstore and fetch you some now. What kind would you like to have?

    “Fetch” is a good word, and not an obsolescent one.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Another interesting colloquial term from the United States for you to look up.

    It is “bunkum”, originally spelled “buncombe”.
    This word has a quite interesting history.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    DAW: I think maybe because you are an electronics engineer you don’t realize that the use of fetch in computer-ese is a term-of-art not in use by speakers of the standared language. Its use in your other examples, e.g. “I will fetch you a drink right now” is a great example of the very type of colloquial use of the word that is NOT standard or fit for formal writing. The article doesn’t say any of the terms are obsolete or obsolescent, but specifies that they are colloquialisms and thereby informal. Maybe those who use colloquialisms regularly are not aware of their status. Kind of like having a piece of lettuce on your teeth, someone else has to point it out. LOL.

  • venqax

    DAW: I think maybe because you are an electronics engineer you don’t realize that the use of fetch in computer-ese is a term-of-art not in use by speakers of the standard language. Its use in your other examples, e.g. “I will fetch you a drink right now”, is a great example of the very type of colloquial use of the word that is NOT standard or fit for formal writing. The article doesn’t say any of the terms are obsolete or obsolescent, but specifies that they are colloquialisms and thereby informal. Maybe those who use colloquialisms regularly are not aware of their status. Kind of like having a piece of lettuce on your teeth, someone else has to point it out. LOL.

    The adjective “fetching”, meaning attractive,etc., does come ultimately from the verb fetch, but has had its separate and distinct meaning for over 400 years.

  • Melanie

    You forgot ‘fixin’ as I”m fixin to do that. LOL

  • tradjick

    Mate, I reckon you should visit Australia for a spell. Apart from “conniption” (which I’ll allow is not in my everyday vocabulary), I have used every single other one of your list in an office setting at least once in the last month, and most of them in the last week. Now I don’t want to cause a ruckus, however the only “native english” speakers I seem to have to restrict my vocabulary for is Americans and, to a lesser extent, Canadians. I also find I have to steer away from such terms as “fortnight”, “whinge”, and “jumper” just to mention a few additional “rural colloquialisms” (?). A very real pet peeve is that I always have to “talk to” rather than “talk with” Americans. The differing acts of “talking with” and “talking to” are not interchangeable.

  • thebluebird11

    Ha, funny you should mention some of these words (and I’m sure the list could go on). I just used “ruckus” today in an email to my boss, telling him I didn’t want to raise a ruckus about a particularly insulting email I got from someone, because I want to keep my job. Other words from your list, like conniption, allow and ornery, I use very often in regular speech (among friends), but would not hesitate to use them even in a job interview. “Yonder” and “reckon” are great words, although it’s my impression those are more used by rural folk than city folk, unless city folk are funning (“Yessir, lookin’ at those clouds yonder, ah reckon we’re gonna have some weather in a spell”).
    @tradjick: Fortnight is a perfectly good word, but not commonly used, I’ll grant (allow?) you that. I have no idea what whinge is, and here in the US, a jumper is a piece of women’s clothing, a sleeveless dress worn with a shirt underneath. Mostly worn by toddler and school-age girls, really. Don’t restrict your vocabulary…enlighten us and broaden our horizons! One of these days I will make it to visit you!

  • Grace

    @thebluebird: In England to ‘whinge’ is to complain in a persistent, peevish manner, and a ‘jumper’ is a sweater (pullover? -anyway a knitted garment for the upper body) for any age or gender.

    I wouldn’t hesitate to use ‘allow’ formally, but I’ll allow that ‘fetch’, ‘spell’, ‘rile’, and ‘reckon’ would be strange in formal writing, though they are common enough in normal everyday speech here.

    ‘Ain’t’ and ‘yonder’ certainly feel archaic – useful for humour and dialect though.

    ‘Ornery’ and ‘ruckus’ feel American to me, though I use them in speech informally and humorously.

    ‘Conniption’? Never heard of it. I reckon that must be pure American that didn’t find its way across the Atlantic before falling out of favour.

  • :Donna

    Hmmm…never knew that “ain’t” was actually a formal word for “am not!” Whenever I hear it, it makes me cringe, because just as in your example of “say it ain’t so,” it is used to subsititute for “is not.” It drives me CRAZY! It’s poor English, plain and simple.

    Another word, until about a year ago, which drove me nuts was “supposably.” Whenever I heard someone use it, it also turned my stomach. It sounds like “supposedly” messed up from people not understanding the word spoken properly. I was totally shocked when I took the time to look it up and found it’s a WORD! Still, it feels like it was a corruption of “supposedly.”

    And I’ve used almost all the words you listed, except “ain’t, spell (in that way) and yonder.” Of course, I’m from New Jersey, so the last two don’t fit in my vocabulary, but “ain’t” is a bit too popular for my taste! lol

  • venqax

    I’ve used almost all the words you listed

    Other words from your list, like conniption, allow and ornery, I use very often in regular speech

    I have used every single other one of your list in an office setting at least once

    OK, maybe we need a check on what colloquialism means. It does not mean obsolete, archaic, never or rarely used, etc. A word qualifies as a colloquialism because of HOW people use it, and to some extent, WHO uses it. If no one uses the word it is not a colloquialism, it is simply obsolete. By definition (and etymology) here’s MW:

    1. of or relating to conversation : conversational
    2. used in or characteristic of familiar and informal conversation; also: unacceptably informal

    It comes from colloquy which, somewhat counterintuitively, means a serious or weighty conversation. Nonentheless, the term retains the meaning of conversational (informal) vs written (formal) language.

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