What Is Hyperbole?

We had at least a thousand interruptions today.
Theo ran the race with winged feet.
This crème brûlée is to die for.

We all at some point exaggerate to emphasize our thoughts or feelings. When doing so, we are often using what is known as hyperbole. Originating from the Greek huperbolḗ (hupér “above, beyond” and bállō “throw”), hyperbole (pronounced hahy-pur-buh-lee) is the deliberate and obvious overstatement of something to magnify it.

Because it aims to evoke amplified feelings and images, hyperbole is often used in poetry, speeches, humor, advertising, and entertainment. Most of us are also probably familiar with the word’s abbreviated form, hype.

In his book The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein refers to hyperbole as “lies without deceiving.” When expressing ourselves with this device, we typically don’t expect our words to be taken literally.

(Coincidentally, the word literally has itself become hyperbolic through its frequent application to convey emphasis without fact: I literally could have grown old waiting in that line.)

Fiction’s broader creative boundaries offer hyperbole greater room for inclusion. Those familiar with William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet can imagine what the story might have been without statements such as her eyes in heaven / would through the airy region stream so bright / that birds would sing and think it were not night. What if Romeo had just said I think that girl is very pretty?

At the same time, even though fiction gives hyperbole more opportunities, it should be used with proper restraint other than to achieve a comic effect or establish a character’s lack of credibility. Otherwise, unless one has Shakespeare’s literary skill, too much overstatement can distract from the narrative and stain the writing style.

Hyperbole should be used even more sparingly in nonfiction because of its primary aim to be credible. If the author does include hyperbole, it should mainly serve to clarify and animate—e.g., The former mayor’s charge at opponents was greater than a bull’s.

Now that we understand what hyperbole is, let’s look at some uses of it in advertising through the years:

It’s so easy, a caveman can do it (GEICO insurance)
It keeps going and going and going (Energizer batteries)
I’d walk a mile for a Camel (Camel cigarettes)
The happiest place on Earth (Disneyland)
America runs on Dunkin’ (Dunkin’ Donuts)

 

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, identify which of the sentences below use hyperbole.

1. I’d give my left leg to get those tickets.

2. The price for that TV is higher than the moon.

3. Donna complains so often I can hear her voice when I sleep.

4. The arts committee is so excited about the season schedule that it released it early.

5. Have you ever shoveled snow for so long that your shoulders ached?

 

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I’d give my left leg to get those tickets. 

2. The price for that TV is higher than the moon.

3. Donna complains so often I can hear her voice when I sleep.

 


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