I. What is Hyperbole?
Hyperbole (pronounced ‘high-purr-bo-lee’) is a figure of speech in which an author or speaker purposely and obviously exaggerates to an extreme. It is used for emphasis or as a way of making a description more creative and humorous. It is important to note that hyperbole is not meant to be taken literally; the audience knows it’s an exaggeration.
That suitcase weighed a ton!
In this example, the speaker claims that a suitcase weighed a ton–two thousand pounds! Of course, this does not mean that the suitcase literally weighed a ton. The speaker is using hyperbole in order to emphasize that the suitcase feels very heavy.
II. Examples of Hyperbole
Here are a few more examples of hyperbole often used in everyday conversation:
She’s going to die of embarrassment.
This does not mean that the girl is going to get sick or that her heart will stop due to embarrassment. Instead, the speaker is using hyperbole to emphasize just how embarrassed she’s going to feel.
Spring break will never come.
This example, like “I haven’t seen you in a million years!” serves to emphasize how long a period of time feels. Sometimes, especially in school, it feels as if time has slowed down and vacation will never come. We know this isn’t true, but we use hyperbole to communicate how things feel to us.
III. The Importance of Hyperbole
Hyperbole is often used in day-to-day speech. For example, upon seeing your friend after a long absence, you may say, “I haven’t seen you in a million years!” You and your friend both know that this is not literally the case. Here, hyperbole is used to emphasize how long it feels since you last saw your friend. It uses exaggeration to emphasize a certain characteristic of something, and especially how it feels. Hyperbole can be used to communicate all kinds of feelings and amuse or surprise people with the creativity of a description.
Hyperbole is also often used in creative writing just to make a description more amusing or creative. For example, it is more interesting to say “she had a brain the size of planet” than “she was really smart.” It is always better to describe something in an original way and hyperbole is a great opportunity to inject feeling and humor into a description.
IV. Examples of Hyperbole in Literature
We often use hyperbole in everyday speech, but we also use it in prose and poetry. For example, in love poetry, the speaker may use hyperbole to emphasize their intense passion and admiration for the beloved.
American poet W.H. Auden writes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,”
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.
When will China and Africa meet? How can a river jump over a mountain? And when will salmon be intelligent enough to sing or evolved enough to walk the streets? Of course, none of these things will happen, so it implies that the author will love her forever. W.H. Auden is using hyperbole to emphasize the strength of his love.
Joseph Conrad emphasizes the passing of time in the novel “Heart of Darkness”:
I had to wait in the station for ten days– an eternity.
Ten days is by no means an eternity, forever, but it felt like it.
V. Examples ofHyperbole in Pop Culture
Figures of speech are not only for classic literature. They are also used in popular culture.
One place where you’ll see hyperbole is in commercials and advertisements. For example, see this slogan from Altoids:
Mints so strong they come in a metal box.
This description implies that the mints are so strong that they need to be contained in a metal box rather than paper or plastic packaging. Of course this isn’t literally true, but it emphasize just how strong this breath mint is. Such a description is funny in its exaggeration and may attract those looking for a stronger mint.
For another set of hyperboles, take a glance at Apple advertising:
The new iPhone is ‘bigger than bigger.’
We know this isn’t possible. Advertisers are using hyperbole to emphasize that the new iPhone is really, really big!
On the new iPad:
Let them choreograph a recital. Explore the North Pole. Organize a food drive. And take their entire songbook caroling.
Most likely, the average iPad user does not have such high-flying plans for their iPad. The use of hyperbole though, links inspiring, charitable, and artistic ideas with the product in the buyer’s mind. Good advertisers use good hyperbole. The truth doesn’t matter in advertising. It is entirely how you make people feel that causes them to spend their money on something and advertisers know this, so hyperbole is their best friend.
Hyperbole fills our daily conversation, advertisements, movies, TV shows, and music. It is a figure of speech that makes the world sound more colorful and stimulating and can be used to convey how strongly you feel about anything.
In “Blank Space,” Taylor Swift claims:
Boys only want love if it’s torture.
Swift is not claiming that men want to be literally tortured in romantic relationships. She is using hyperbole to claim that men prefer relationships that are difficult and dramatic.
- Like the romantic poets that came before him, Sam Smith uses hyperbole to emphasize the strength and depth of his love in “Latch”:
How do you do it? You got me losing every breath. What did you give me to make my heart bleed out my chest?
What love could possibly cause Smith to lose his breath and to begin bleeding from his chest? A love that has been hyperbolized. Here, Smith uses the powerful figure of speech to emphasize the power of the feeling of love which has seized him.
VI. Related Terms
(Terms: simile and metaphor)
When using simile, a writer compares two different things using the words “like” or “as.” “As” can be used to indicate that two things are similar in some particular respect, but otherwise different, such as in “she’s as smart as Einstein.” Hyperbole also emphasizes a particular characteristic of something. However, simile is different from hyperbole in that it must use a “like” or “as” comparison and does not necessarily (but may) use exaggeration. For example, “she’s as smart as a teacher” is also a simile, but maybe not a hyperbole.
For example, “She is like a rose” is a simile which compares a woman to a rose (a beautiful flower), describing the woman as beautiful—or perhaps thorny. This cliché simile emphasizes her beauty, but does not necessarily exaggerate it. After all women are generally at least as beautiful as flowers if not more so. An example of hyperbole in the same situation would be “She is the most beautiful woman in the entire universe!”
Metaphor and hyperbole are similar in that both say something literally which is meant to be taken figuratively. Such as “that man is a monster.” Many hyperboles may use metaphor and metaphors may use hyperbole, but they are quite different. While hyperbole is exaggeration, metaphor is using one thing to represent something very different.
For example, a common metaphor is “the black sheep of the family.” We don’t literally mean that someone is a black sheep; a human being cannot literally be a sheep, unless this is a very strange science-fiction movie. But the black sheep stands for certain qualities of the family member in question. A black sheep is unusual and perhaps not accepted by its herd. Someone who is called a black sheep must be different from other family members in some way and may not be accepted by family members for that reason. This is not a hyperbole because no characteristics of the person are being exaggerated. An example of hyperbole in this situation would be “He has absolutely nothing in common with our family!” We know that this can’t be true; all family members share DNA and usually many experiences, but we use hyperbole to emphasize how different this one family member feels from the rest of the family.
Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration used to make a point. It is like the opposite of “understatement.” It is from a Greek word meaning “excess.”
Hyperboles can be found in literature and oral communication. They would not be used in nonfiction works, like medical journals or research papers; but, they are perfect for fictional works, especially to add color to a character or humor to the story.
Hyperboles are comparisons, like similes and metaphors, but are extravagant and even ridiculous. They are not meant to be taken literally.
Hyperbole Adds Excitement and Fun
A boring story can come to life or become comical with the use of a hyperbole. Some commonly used examples of hyperbole include:
- I’ve told you a million times!
- It was so cold, I saw polar bears wearing jackets.
- She is so dumb, she thinks Taco Bell is a Mexican phone company.
- I am so hungry I could eat a horse.
- I have a million things to do.
- I had to walk 15 miles to school in the snow, uphill.
- I had a ton of homework.
- If I can’t buy that new game, I will die!
- He is as skinny as a toothpick.
- This car goes faster than the speed of light.
- That new car costs a bazillion dollars.
- We are so poor; we don’t have two cents to rub together.
- That joke is so old, the last time I heard it I was riding on a dinosaur.
- They ran like greased lightning.
- He's got tons of money.
- You could have knocked me over with a feather.
- Her brain is the size of a pea.
- He is older than the hills.
Hyperbole in Media and Literature
If used properly, hyperbole can encourage consumers to buy products. There has been limited research into this area, but a 2007 study by Mark A. Callister PhD & Lesa A. Stern PhD, "The Role of Visual Hyperbole in Advertising Effectiveness" found that "hyperbolic ads produce more ad liking than nonhyperbolic ads".
Examples of hyperboles in advertising include:
- “adds amazing luster for infinite, mirror-like shine” (Brilliant Brunette shampoo)
- “It doesn't get better than this” (Oscar Meyer)
- "The best a man can get" (Gillette)
A great example of hyperbole in literature comes from Paul Bunyan’s opening remarks in the American folktale of Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox:
“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.”
Another example comes from the poem "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W.H. Auden:
"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."
Following are some short quotes from literature containing hyperboles:
- The skin on her face was as thin and drawn as tight as the skin of onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two picks. - Parker's Back, Flannery O'Connor
- It was not a mere man he was holding, but a giant; or a block of granite. The pull was unendurable. The pain unendurable. - A Boy and a Man, James Ramsey Ullman
- People moved slowly then. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. - To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- It's a slow burg. I spent a couple of weeks there one day. - The People, Yes, Carl Sandberg
- Why does a boy who’s fast as a jet take all day and sometimes two to get to school? - Speed Adjustments, John Ciadri
Remember, hyperbole can be found in many sources, from poetry and plays to our everyday speech. Look for these fun comparisons and use hyperbole to add emphasis, feeling and humor into your writing!