Hyperbole: An expression that exaggerates, or describes something as greatly magnified or diminished beyond the strict line of truth.
Hyperbole: An expression that exaggerates, or describes something as greatly magnified or diminished beyond the strict line of truth.

What Is Hyperbole?

Hyperbole is an excessive exaggerationOpens in new window—an expression that exaggerates, or describes something as greatly magnified or diminished beyond the strict line of truthOpens in new window. In other words, hyperbole magnifiesOpens in new window or diminishesOpens in new window the significanceOpens in new window of something to a disproportioned degree than it really is, and could not actually be true.

The key component that makes hyperbole effective is that part of truth; Hyperboles must be founded on elements of truth to achieve its aim, and at the same time be meaningful.

    For example, If I say,
  • “I’m so tired I could sleep for a week,” I am using a hyperbole. I’m not in a coma, and I couldn’t possibly sleep for a week, but the connection correlates.

The truth lies in the extent of the tiredness. It’s an exaggeration, but it’s based in truth. Where there is no element of truth nor resemblance in the Hyperbole, our compositions are wretchedly debased, and the understandings of our audience are denigrated, when they ought to be charmed with entertainment.

    Here, QuintilianOpens in new window chirps his views,
  • “But as to the Hyperbole itself, let there be some measure observed; for though every Hyperbole is beyond belief, yet it ought not to be beyond bounds, nor is there a more ready way to the bombast, than a transgression in this kind. It would be disagreeable to repeat how many errors have sprung from this source, especially as they are far from being secret and unknown. It is sufficient to say, that the Hyperbole speaks what is false, but not so as to desire to deceive by its falsehood; upon which account we shoud be very careful how far we may exceed with propriety, and where it is that we are to stop.”

Divisions of Hyperbole

Hyperbole is categorized into two divisions:

  1. That which magnifies beyond the truth; where such expressions, “whiter than snow,” “blacker than charcoal,” “higher than a mountain,” “swifter than the wind,” etc., can be seen with; and
  2. That which diminishes the significance of something below the truth. In this category, such expressions as: “slower than a snail,” “as deaf as a rock,” “as blind as a mole,” etc., are expressed. Hypebole of this nature flourishes in the Scripture,
    as it is in Isaiah 40.17:
  • All nations before God are as nothing; and they are counted to him as less than nothing.”
  • And Psalm 62. 9:
  • “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity.”

These two divisions of Hyperboles can be expressed in a variety of ways, as the following headings show.

1)  In Plain & Direct Terms:

  • High o’er the winds and storms the mountain bears,
    And on its top recline the weary stars.
  • So frown’d the mighty combatants, that hell
    Grew darker at their frown
  • (said of Milton, when speaking of Satan and Death on the point of engagement.)

2)  By form of Similitude or Comparison:

    As occasioned when Virgil, describing a seafight, said thus:
  • At once they rush to conflict: all the sea
    Foams with the dashing oars and forky prows,
    As if the Cyclades uprooted swam
    The ocean, or with mountains mountains wag’d
    Enormous battle on th’afflicted deep.

3)  Using a strong Metaphor:
Another significant variety of expressing an Hyperbole is the use of a strong Metaphor. This variety may consists when we call a very virtuous character “an angel,” and a very vicious one, “a fiend” or “devil”. As we may say a drunkard is “a swine,” and an extortioner “a wolf” or “barpy”.

It appears that when Hyperbole is expressed by a strong Metaphor, as in the third case, it is rather to be considered as a particular species of the MetaphorOpens in new window than a distinct and particular kind of trope.

Dr. WardOpens in new window, in his “System of Oratory (vol.ii. p. 24), observes, that an Hyperbole is principally metaphorical, but sometimes taken from other tropes; as when instead of saying Cato was a very virtuous man, Velleius Paterculus calls him the image of virtue, it is an hyperbolical MetonymyOpens in new window of the adjunctOpens in new window for the subject.

The structure of the hyperbole tends to lie in the difficulty of conveying to others the ardor and extent of our ideas, and therefore we venture beyond the boundaries of truth, that the mind of the hearer without any further labour may reach as far as the truth at once.

    In this vein, QuintilianOpens in new window notes:
  • “We are allowed to speak beyond the truth, becaue we cannot exactly strike upon the truth; and it is better we should go beyond, than not attain the truth in our discourses”.

The account Lord LansdowneOpens in new window gives of Hyperboles is very just and suitable, and hence will justify its presentation here:

  • Hyperboles, so daring and so bold,
    Disdaining bounds, are yet by bounds control’d;
    Above the clouds, but still within our fight,
    They mount with truth, and make a tow’ring flight;
    Presenting things impossible to view,
    They wander thro’ incredible to true:
    Falshoods thus mix’d, like metals, are refin’d;
    And truth, like silver, leaves the dross behind

According to SenecaOpens in new window, “every hyperbole is extended with this view, that by falsehood it may arrive at the truth. So, if a person says:

  • ‘In colour whiter than the snow,
    In swiftness fleeter than the wind,’

he/she said indeed what was impossible; but it was with a design, that as much as was possible might be credited. In the same vein, a person who says:

  • ‘He is less moveable than rocks,
    And more impetuous than the sea,

did not imagine that he should persuade mankind that there was any person so immoveable as a rock. An hyperbole never expects so much as it dares; but affirms what is incredible that it may reach what is credible.”

Notable Examples

1.  The fear of an enemy augments the conceptions of the size and prowess of their leader. Thus, the scout in Ossian, seized with this propensity, delineates a dreadful picture of the enemy’s chief. See example:

  • “I saw their chief, tall as a rock of ice; his spear, the blasted fir; his shield, the rising moon; he sat on the shore, like a cloud of mist on the hill.”

2.  Admiration of the happiness of successful love exaggerates conceptions of the lover. Shakespeare exalts the height of the lover’s mind so great as to counteract the natural bounds of gravity esteeming his body. See example:

  • “A lover may bestride the Gossamer,
    That idles in the wanton summer air,
    And yet not fall – so light is vanity.”

3.  Envy also diminishes its adversary; and upon this principle Shakespeare introduces Cassius vilifying the behavior of Caesar in a fever. See example:

  • “He had a fever when he was in Spain;
    And when the fit was on him, I did mark
    How he did shake. ‘Tis true, this god did shake;
    His coward lips did from their colour fly;
    And that same eye whose bend did awe the world,
    Did loss its lustre: I did hear him groan,
    Aye, and that tongue of his, that bade the Romans
    Mark him, and write his speeches in their books,
    Alas! It cry’d – Give me some drink, Titinius,
    As a sick girl.”

4.  Fame exaggerates the person, as well as the qualities of a hero;

  • “The Scythians, impressed with the fame of Alexander were astonished when they found him a little man.”

Contemporary Examples of Hyperbole

  • I have a million things to do.
  • I had a ton of homework.
  • If she stops loving me, I’l stop breathing.
  • Her legs are so tiny like those of a mosquito.
  • Alex’s new car moves as fast as the speed of light.
  • She’s older than the hills.
  • Her brain is the size of a pea.
  • I've seen the movie a million times.
  • I was so exhausted that I could have been knocked over with a feather.

The Hyperbole is one of the greatest freedoms in all language. It is a most exquisite, elevated, and impassioned form of speech. Like a flame from a strong internal fire, it breaks out at once into a blaze, and mounts with an irresistible power and rapidity to heaven itself. However, great judgment is required in the use of the Hyperbole. To this end, let us remember, that there must be some foundational truth or some degree of resemblance that must be laid as the structure of the Hyperbole, though the superstructure is allowed to rise, and enlarge itself far above and beyond it.

In sum, Hyperboles add vibranceOpens in new window, amusementOpens in new window, and styleOpens in new window to a statement, and are not used in non–fiction works unless the writings are of a humorous nature. They would not be used in research works or medical journals. Hyperboles are ideal for fictional writingOpens in new window where the author wants to add humor to the writing or add substance to the characters. As earlier emphasized, Hyperboles are also used via comparisonOpens in new window devices like simileOpens in new window and metaphorOpens in new window to make bizarre comparisons that are viewed as ridiculous and exaggerated.

Further Readings:
Alexander Jamieson HyperboleOpens in new window
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh HyperboleOpens in new window
Thomas Gibbons, Rhetoric; Or, A View of Its Principal Tropes and Figures, in Their Origin [...] HyperboleOpens in new window
Quintilian 8.6.67-76; Bede 615; Trebizond 61v ("superlatio," "hyperbole");
Susenbrotus (1540) 17-19 ("hyberbole," "superlatio," "dementiens superiectio," "eminentia," "excessus");
Sherry (1550) 71; Peacham (1577) D4v;