Shashi Tharoor’s Word of the Week: Hyperbole
hyperbole (noun,) a figure of speech, in which extreme exaggeration is used for effect
The Prime Minister’s promise to put Rs 15 lakh in every Indian’s bank account wasn’t understood by everyone as hyperbole, so there was a lot of disappointment when it never happened.
Hyperbole, or an “obvious exaggeration in rhetoric,” derives from the Latin and Greek words hyperbole, literally meaning a “throwing beyond,” from hyper-, meaning “beyond” and bole, meaning “a throwing or casting”, thus figuratively an exaggeration or extravagance. The use of the term in its rhetorical sense goes as far back as Aristotle, where it is also known as auxesis.
Many of the best-known examples of hyperbole have become such clichés – like “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” -- that it is always wise to avoid using them, because they have been drained of all meaning by over-use. However, hyperbole has its uses in poetry and oratory, especially of the political variety, as well as in personal conversation. The person using hyperbole does not intend to be taken literally, but rather to convey the intensity of his convictions or feelings about something – “if I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat” is a typical piece of hyperbole, often uttered by people who don’t even possess a hat. The listener is also meant to understand that the statement merely conveys a feeling rather than embodying a promise.
Hyperboles are often used in casual speech as intensifiers, such as saying “my poor boy! His schoolbag weighs a tonne.” Hyperbole serves to make the point that the son of the speaker has an extremely heavy bag, although it obviously does not literally weigh a ton. Hyperbole can be used to convey or express humour, contempt, political views, and all sorts of emotions from excitement to distress, all intending to make an effect. The American humorist Will Rogers, for instance, once combined the first three of these purposes when he said of a particular politician that, if brains were gunpowder, he wouldn’t have enough to blow the wax out of his ears.
Hyperbole is a favourite tool of political speech-making, and some speakers seem given to using hyperbole much more often than necessary or even wise, as is in the case of Mr Modi’s promise of 15 lakhs that Amit Shah had to later explain away as a jumla. It is also used a great deal in children’s writing – fairy tales and legends need the overemphasis that hyperbole provides. Shakespeare used hyperbole quite brilliantly. Take Romeo’s description of Juliet: “The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars/As daylight doth a lamp.”
Perhaps the best use of hyperbole in contemporary writing occurs in humorous prose, because it evokes a point so well and can be funny in its own right. In Old Times on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote: “I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.” In the American folktale Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan remarks: “Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”
Popular American humourist and columnist Dave Barry takes hyperbole to an extreme in describing men’s ability to fool themselves in Revenge of the Pork Person: “A man can have a belly you could house commercial aircraft in and a grand total of eight greasy strands of hair, which he grows real long and combs across the top of his head so that he looks, when viewed from above, like an egg in the grasp of a giant spider, plus this man can have B.O. to the point where he interferes with radio transmissions, and he will still be convinced that, in terms of attractiveness, he is borderline Don Johnson”.
Obviously no part of Barry’s statement and none of his analogies and metaphors can be taken literally – but the combined effect of his hyperbole means he couldn’t have made his point more clearly, or humorously.
We are all accustomed to hyperbole in daily life: “I’ve already told you a million times” is a typical example. Or “I’m buried under a mountain of paperwork.” How many men, smitten by a lady whose “mile-wide smile could melt anyone’s heart”, have assured women “I’d go to the ends of the earth for you”? (Three hyperboles there – and it would surely be wrong to actually expect a lover to fulfil that commitment.) Another favourite is a host assuring unexpected guests that his wife has “cooked enough food for an army.” And when someone tells you “I’m so tired I could sleep for a million years”, assume he or she is speaking hyperbolically, unless they are about to commit suicide.
Love, in particular, lends itself to hyperbole. But sometimes hyperbole is indeed meant to be taken seriously: “I can’t live without you” is said with great seriousness by people who genuinely mean it when they say it. Of course, they don’t necessarily continue to mean it – when the time for divorce comes, they always want to go on living.
Hyperbole, as an exasperated member of the audience at one of Prime Minister Modi’s speeches once said, is going to kill us all. Except that statement, too, is hyperbole…