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COLLOQUIAL WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS
The term colloquial is old enough: Dr Johnson, the great English lexicographer, used it. Yet with him it had a definitely derogatory ring. S. Johnson thought colloquial words inconsistent with good usage and, thinking it his duty to reform the English language, he advised “to clear it from colloquial barbarisms”. By the end of the 19th century with Neo-grammarians the description of colloquial speech came into its own, and linguists began to study the vocabulary that people actually use under various circumstances and not what they may be justified in using.
As employed in our time, the adjective colloquial does not necessarily mean ‘slangy’ or ‘vulgar’, although slang and vulgar vocabulary make part of colloquial vocabulary, or, in set-theoretical terminology, form subsets contained in the set we call colloquial vocabulary.
The term literary colloquial is used to denote the vocabulary used by educated people in the course of ordinary conversation or when writing letters to intimate friends. A good sample may be found in works by a number of authors, such as J. Galsworthy, E.M. Forster, C.P. Snow, W.S. Maugham, J.B.Priestley, and others. For a modern reader it represents the speech of the elder generations. The younger generation of writers (M. Drabble for instance) adhere to familiar colloquial. So it seems in a way to be a differentiation of generations. Familiar colloquial is more emotional and much more free and careless than literary colloquial. It is also characterised by a great number of jocular or ironical expressions and nonce-words.
Low colloquial is a term used for illiterate popular speech. It is very difficult to find hard and fast rules that help to establish the boundary between low colloquial and dialect, because in actual communication the two are often used together. Moreover, we have only the evidence of fiction to go by, and this may be not quite accurate in speech characterisation. The basis of distinction between low colloquial and the two other types of colloquial is purely social. Everybody remembers G.B. Shaw’s “Pygmalion” where the problem of speech as a mark of one’s social standing and of social inequalities is one of the central issues. Ample material for observation of this layer of vocabulary is provided by the novels of Alan Sillitoe, Sid Chaplin or Stan Barstow. The chief peculiarities of low colloquial concern grammar and pronunciation; as to the vocabulary, it is different from familiar colloquial in that it contains more vulgar words, and sometimes also elements of dialect.
Other vocabulary layers below the level of standard educated speech are, besides low colloquial, the so-called slang and argot. Unlike low colloquial, however, they have only lexical peculiarities. Argot should be distinguished from slang: the first term serves to denote a special vocabulary and idiom, used by a particular social or age group, especially by the so-called underworld (the criminal circles). Its main point is to be unintelligible to outsiders.
The boundaries between various layers of colloquial vocabulary not being very sharply defined, it is more convenient to characterise it on the whole. If we realise that gesture, tone and voice and situation are almost as important in an informal act of communication as words are, we shall be able to understand why a careful choice of words in everyday conversation plays a minor part as compared with public speech or literature, and consequently the vocabulary is much less variegated. The same pronouns, prop-words, auxiliaries, postpositives and the same most frequent and generic terms are used again and again, each conveying a great number of different meanings. Only a small fraction of English vocabulary is put to use, so that some words are definitely overworked. Words like thing, business, do, get, go, fix, nice, really, well and other words characterised by a very high rank of frequency are used in all types of informal intercourse conveying a great variety of denotative and emotional meanings and fulfilling no end of different functions. The utterances abound in imaginative phraseology, ready-made formulas of politeness and tags, standard expressions of assent, dissent, surprise, pleasure, gratitude, apology, etc.
The following extract from the play “An Inspector Calls” by J.B. Priestley can give ample material for observations:
BIRLING (triumphantly): There you are! Proof positive. The whole story’s just a lot of moonshine. Nothing but an elaborate sell. (He produces a huge sigh of relief.) Nobody likes to be sold as
badly as that — but — for all that – – – – (He smiles at them
all.) Gerald, have a drink.
GERALD (smiling): Thanks. I think I could just do with one now.
BIRLING (going to sideboard): So could I.
Mrs BIRLING (smiling): And I must say, Gerald, you’ve argued this very cleverly, and I’m most grateful.
GERALD (going for his drink): Well, you see, while I was out of the house I'd time to cool off and think things out a little.
BIRLING (giving him a drink): Yes, he didn’t keep you on the run as he did the rest of us. I’ll admit now he gave me a bit of a scare at the time. But I'd a special reason for not wanting any public scandal just now. (Has his drink now, and raises his glass.) Well, here’s to us. Come on, Sheila, don’t look like that. All over now.
Among the colloquialisms occurring in this conversation one finds whole formulas, such as there you are, you see, I’m most grateful, here’s to us; set expressions: a lot of moonshine, keep sb on the run, for all that, cases of semi-conversion or typical word-groups like have a drink (and not drink)’, give a scare (and not scare)’, verbs with postpositives: cool off, think things out, come on; particles like just and well. Every type of colloquial style is usually rich in figures of speech. There is no point in enumerating them all, and we shall only note the understatement: a bit of a scare, I could just do with one.
The above list shows that certain lexical patterns are particularly characteristic of colloquialisms. Some may be added to those already mentioned.
Substantivised adjectives are very frequent in colloquial speech: constitutional ‘a walk’, daily ‘a woman who comes daily to help with household chores’, also greens for‘green leaf vegetables’, such as spinach, cabbage, etc., and woollies ‘woollen clothes’.
A large number of new formations is supplied by a process combining composition and conversion and having as prototypes verbs with postpositives: carry-on ‘way of behaving’, let-down ‘an unexpected disappointment’, make-up ‘cosmetics’.
One of the most modern developments frequent in colloquial style are the compounds coined by back-formation: the type to baby-sit (from baby-sitter) is often resorted to.
It is common knowledge that colloquial English is very emotional.1 Emotions find their lexical expression not only in emphatic adverbs and adjectives of the awfully and divine type, or interjections including swear words, but also in a great number of other lexical intensifiers. In the following example the feeling named by the novelist is expressed in direct speech by an understatement: Gazing down with an expression that was loving, gratified and knowledgeable, she said, “Now I call that a bit of all right.” (Snow)
In all the groups of colloquialisms, and in familiar colloquial especially, words easily acquire new meanings and new valency. We have already observed it in the case of the verb do in I could do with one meaning ‘I would like to have (a drink)’ and originally used jokingly. Make do is a colloquialism also characterised by fixed context; it means ‘to continue to use old things instead of buying new ones, to economise’. Other peculiarities of valency of the same verb are observed in such combinations as do a museum, or do for sb, meaning ‘to act as a housekeeper’. Verbs with postpositives are used in preference to their polysyllabic synonyms.
Such intensifiers as absolutely, fabulous/fab, grand, lovely, superb, terrific and the like come readily to the speaker’s lips. Getting hackneyed, they are apt to lose their denotational meaning and keep only their intensifying function. The loss of denotational meaning in intensifiers is also very obvious in various combinations with the word dead, such as dead sure, dead easy, dead right, dead slow, dead straight.
As these adverbs and adjectives become stale other expressive means may be used. Here is an example of heated argument in literary colloquial between the well-bred and educated personages of ÑÐ. Snow’s “The Conscience of the Rich":
“If you're seriously proposing to print rumours without even a scrap of evidence, the paper isn’t going to last very long, is it?”
“Why in God’s name not?”
“What’s going to stop a crop of libel actions'?”
“The trouble with you lawyers,” said Seymour, jauntily once more, “is that you never know when a fact is a fact, and you never see an inch beyond your noses. I am prepared to bet any of you, or all three, if you like, an even hundred pounds that no one, no one brings an action against us over this business”.
1 The subject has been dealt with in the previous chapter but a few additional examples will not come amiss.
Carefully observing the means of emphasis used in the passage above, one will notice that the words a scrap, an inch, even are used here only as intensifiers lending emphasis to what is being said; they are definitely colloquial. But they have these properties due to the context, and the reader will have no difficulty in finding examples where these words are neither emphatic nor stylistically coloured. The conclusion is that some words acquire these characteristics only under certain very definite conditions, and may be contrasted with words and expressions that are always emotional and always colloquial in all their meanings, whatever the context. On earth or in God’s name, for instance, are colloquial and emotional only after some interrogative word: Why in God’s name ..., Why on earth ..., Where in God’s name ..., Where on earth ..., What in God’s name..., What on earth..., etc. A typical context is seen in the following extract: The man must be mad, sitting-out there on a freezing morning like this. What on earth he thinks he is doing I can’t imagine (Shaffer). On the other hand, there exist oaths, swear words and their euphemistic variations that function as emotional colloquialisms independent of the context. The examples are: by God, Goodness gracious, for Goodness sake, good Lord and many others. They occur very often and are highly differentiated socially. Not only is there a difference in expressions used by schoolboys and elderly ladies, sailors and farmers but even those chosen by students of different universities may show some local colour.
Many lexical expressions of modality may be also referred to colloquialisms, as they do not occur anywhere except informal everyday intercourse. Affirmative and negative answers, for instance, show a wide range of modality shades: definitely, up to a point, in a way, exactly, right-o, by all means, I expect so, I should think so, rather, and on the other hand: I am afraid, not or not at all, not in the least, by no means, etc. E. g.: Mr Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, “Definitely, Lord Copper”; when he was wrong, “Up to a point.” (Waugh) The emotional words already mentioned are used as strong negatives in familiar or low colloquial: “Have you done what he told you?” “Have I hell!” The answer means ‘Of course I have not and have no intention of doing it’. Or: “So he died of natural causes, did he?” “Natural causes be damned.” The implication is that there is no point in pretending the man died of natural causes, because it is obvious that he was killed. A synonymous expression much used at present is my foot. The second answer could be substituted by Natural causes my foot, without any change in meaning.
Colloquialisms are a persistent feature of the conversation of at least 90% of the population. For a foreign student the first requirement is to be able to differentiate those idioms that belong to literature, and those that are peculiar to spoken language. It is necessary to pay attention to comments given in good dictionaries as to whether a word is colloquial (colloq.), slang (sl.) or vulgar (vulg.).
To use colloquialisms one must have an adequate fluency in English and a sufficient familiarity with the language, otherwise one may sound ridiculous, especially, perhaps, if one uses a mixture of British and American colloquialisms. The author has witnessed some occasions where a student used American slang words intermingled with idiomatic expressions learned from Ch. Dickens, with a kind of English public school accent; the result was that his speech sounded like nothing on earth.
Slang words are identified and distinguished by contrasting them to standard literary vocabulary. They are expressive, mostly ironical words serving to create fresh names for some things that are frequent topics of discourse. For the most part they sound somewhat vulgar, cynical and harsh, aiming to show the object of speech in the light of an off-hand contemptuous ridicule. Vivid examples can be furnished by various slang words for money, such as beans, brass, dibs, dough, chink, oof, wads; the slang synonyms for word head are attic, brain-pan, hat peg, nut, upper storey, compare also various synonyms for the adjective drunk: boozy, cock-eyed, high, soaked, tight and many more. Notions that for some reason or other are apt to excite an emotional reaction attract as a rule many synonyms: there are many slang words for food, alcohol drinks, stealing and other violations of the law, for jail, death, madness, drug use, etc.
Slang has often attracted the attention of lexicographers. The best-known English slang dictionary is compiled by E. Partridge.
The subject of slang has caused much controversy for many years. Very different opinions have been expressed concerning its nature, its boundaries and the attitude that should be adopted towards it. The question whether it should be considered a healthful source of vocabulary development or a manifestation of vocabulary decay has been often discussed.
It has been repeatedly stated by many authors that after a slang word has been used in speech for a certain period of time, people get accustomed to it and it ceases to produce that shocking effect for the sake of which it has been originally coined. The most vital among slang words are then accepted into literary vocabulary. The examples are bet, bore, chap, donkey, fun, humbug, mob, odd, pinch, shabby, sham, snob, trip, also some words from the American slang: graft, hitch-hiker, sawbones, etc.
These words were originally slang words but have now become part of literary vocabulary. The most prominent place among them is occupied by words or expressions having no synonyms and serving as expressive names for some specific notions. The word teenager, so very frequent now, is a good example. Also blurb — a publisher’s eulogy of a book printed on its jacket or in advertisements elsewhere, which is originally American slang word.
The communicative value of these words ensures their stability. But they are rather the exception. The bulk of slang is formed by shortlived words. E. Partridge, one of the best known specialists in English
slang, gives as an example a series of vogue words designating a man of fashion that superseded one another in English slang. They are: blood (1550-1660), macaroni (1760), buck (1720-1840), swell (1811), dandy (1820-1870), toff (1851)1.
It is convenient to group slang words according to their place in the vocabulary system, and more precisely, in the semantic system of the vocabulary. If they denote a new and necessary notion, they may prove an enrichment of the vocabulary and be accepted into standard English. If, on the other hand, they make just another addition to a cluster of synonyms, and have nothing but novelty to back them, they die out very quickly, constituting the most changeable part of the vocabulary.
Another type of classification suggests subdivision according to the sphere of usage, into general slang and special slang. General slang includes words that are not specific for any social or professional group, whereas special slang is peculiar for some such group: teenager slang, university slang, public school slang, Air Force slang, football slang, sea slang, and so on. This second group is heterogeneous. Some authors, A.D. Schweitzer for instance, consider argot to belong here. It seems, however, more logical to differentiate slang and argot. The essential difference between them results from the fact that the first has an expressive function, whereas the second is primarily concerned with secrecy. Slang words are clearly motivated, ñf. cradle-snatcher ‘an old man who marries or courts a much younger woman’; belly-robber ‘the head of a military canteen’; window-shopping ‘feasting one’s eyes on the goods displaced in the shops, without buying anything’. Argot words on the contrary do not show their motivation, ñf. rap ‘kill’, shin ‘knife’, book ‘a life sentence’.
Regarding professional words that are used by representatives of various trades in oral intercourse, it should be observed that when the word is the only name for some special notion it belongs not to slang but to terminology. If, on the other hand, it is a jocular name for something that can be described in some other way, it is slang.
There are cases, of course, when words originating as professional slang later on assume the dignity of special terms or pass on into general slang. The borderlines are not always sharp and distinct.
For example, the expression be on the beam was first used by pilots about the beam of the radio beacon indicating the proper course for the aircraft to follow. Then figuratively be on the beam came to mean ‘to be right’, whereas be off the beam came to mean ‘to be wrong’ or ‘to be at a loss’.
1 To this list the 20th century words masher and teddy-boy could be added. There seems to be no new equivalent in today’s English because such words as mod and rocker (like beat and beatnik) or hippy and punk imply not only, and not so much a certain way of dressing but other tastes and mental make-up as well. Mods (admirers of modern jazz music) and more sportive rockers were two groups of English youth inimical to one another. The words are formed by abbreviation and ellipsis: mod< modern jazz; rocker < rock’n roll; beat, beatnik < beat generation’, punk<punk rocker.
A great deal of slang comes from the USA: corny, cute, fuss-pot, teenager, swell, etc. It would be, however, erroneous to suppose that slang is always American in its origin. On the contrary, American slang also contains elements coming from Great Britain, such as cheerio ‘goodbye’, right-o ‘yes’ > Gerry for ‘a German soldier’, and some, though not many, others.
Slang is a difficult problem and much yet remains to be done in elucidating it, but a more complete treatment of this layer of vocabulary would result in an undue swelling of the chapter. Therefore in concluding the discussion of slang we shall only emphasise that the most important peculiarities of slang concern not form but content. The lexical meaning of a slang word contains not only the denotational component but also an emotive component (most often it expresses irony) and all the other possible types of connotation — it is expressive, evaluative and stylistically coloured and is the marked member of a stylistic opposition. .
tions, the salesmen of these were stationers and what they sold — stationery (with the noun suffix -ery as in grocery or bakery).
Not all doublets come in pairs. Examples of groups are: appreciate, appraise, apprise; astound, astonish, stun; kennel, channel, canal.
The Latin word discus is the origin of a whole group of doublets:
dais<ME deis < OF deis < Lat discus dish < ME dish < OE disc < Lat discus disc/disk < Lat discus discus (in sport) < Lat discus
Other doublets that for the most part justify their names by coming in pairs show in their various ways the influence of the language or dialect systems which they passed before entering the English vocabulary.
Compare words borrowed in Middle English from Parisian French: chase, chieftain, chattels, guard, gage with their doublets of Norman French origin: catch, captain, cattle, ward, wage.
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