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Hyperbole

The purpose of a hyperbole is to produce an effect on the listener through the use of exaggeration. It could be understood as a kind of joke, insofar as its meaning and effect would be ruined if it is taken literally by the listener. Also, it is worth pointing out that the term hyperbole has a secondary meaning within the context of mathematics; this has nothing to do with the literary meaning that has been explicated here.

Definition

Hyperbole is a literary device which uses language to describe something as better or worse than it actually is. Hyperbole is more well-known as exaggeration, usually extravagant and untrue. The word derived from Latin, and then the Greek hyperbolē meaning excess. The purpose of hyperbole is the create more emphasis on a real word, idea, phrase, or situation. The first known use of hyperbole was in the 15th century B.C.E. Some synonyms of hyperbole are caricature, elaboration, embellishment, embroidery, magnification, overstatement, or stretching the truth. Hyperbole is often used in comedy or satirical writing or speech, and some types of speakers seem given to using hyperbole much more often than necessary for emphasis.

Types

Some specific types of writing, such as fairy tales, folklore, legends, and children’s writing are given to hyperbole because the overemphasis increases the great deeds or magical characteristics of famous or historical characters from literature. Children, with their limitless sense of awe and suspension of disbelief, are the perfect worshippers of hyperbole. The Brothers Grimm used hyperboles in their folk stories and Shakespeare’s writing was awash with hyperbole because it made his writing more dramatic. That can be helpful when writing dramatic plays with tragic and comedic plot points and events.

An example from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.”

Here, Shakespeare’s use of all-encompassing and hyperbolic words such as “multitudinous” and “incarnadine” stretch the image of the ocean turning red with the blood washed from the protagonist’s hand. Hyperbole increases the drama of this verse, and serves to create an expansive vision of blood-filled water to increase the audience’s perception of the protagonist’s fear.

In American folklore, such as the tales of Paul Bunyan (who is hyperbole personified, being a giant who legend says lived in northern America decades ago), hyperbole is used to create an impossibly large personality for the man of legend. The following example demonstrates this:

“One winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue…it got so frigid that all spoken words froze before they could be hear. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.” – S. E. Schlosser

In this example hyperbole is employed to imply the extreme cold that occurred one historical north American winter. The reader knows that geese cannot fly backwards and words cannot freeze, but the emphasis on the thought of these things occurring is at once comical and emphasizing. Shakespeare's Hamlet is another tragic play in which hyperbole was used to portray drama and power.

Examples of Hyperbole

Often hyperbole is not just an exaggeration, but something that could not really occur in reality. This is demonstrated in the S.E. Schlosser quote above from the Paul Bunyan legend, and is used often in children’s stories, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and C. Colloid’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. Tall tales, such as those about Brer Rabbit and John Henry, are also examples of hyperbole. Following are some excellent examples of popular sayings that demonstrate hyperbole.

“I am so hungry I could eat a horse.”

“The movie was awful; it took years for it to end.”

“When he saw her, his smile grew to size of a railroad tie.”

“Your backpack weighs a ton!”

“There were five million people at the concert.”

Using hyperbole in conversation or comedic writing has a farce or satirical effect, whereas hyperbole in literature makes the common remarkable and creates more intense feelings in the readership. Hyperbole can help a writer develop most contrast between characters and situations, and also to attract the reader’s attention to a particular idea or situation.

Hyperbole is often used in poetry to present settings and characters with majesty, respect, and a sense of largess. Following are two examples.

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street,

I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.”

– W. H. Auden from As I Walked Out One Evening

”By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Concord Hymn

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