What Is Hyperbole?
Like many of the terms used for our literary devices, the origins of the word hyperbole lie in ancient Greek. Hyperbole is a compound word with various interpretations including an over-casting or a ‘ throwing beyond’. The sense here is that of over-reaching to convey an amplified meaning, that is, exaggeration.
In many ways, we can think of hyperbole as the art of exaggeration. While the sum total of the words used is not meant to be taken in the literal sense, hyperbole is used to grasp beyond the everyday to express an intensity that is larger than life.
When hyperbole is used, whether in speech or writing, the listener or reader is aware that the meaning is not intended literally.
We can find numerous examples of hyperbole in our everyday speech. For example:
● “My mum’s going to kill me when she finds out”
● “He’s as tall as a house”
● “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”
● “She’s as old as the hills”
● “I told her a million times”
As we can see from the examples above, it’s possible to use hyperbole in the form of other literary devices such as simile and metaphor. The important point is that the statements are not true in a literal sense and that they employ exaggeration to convey their point.
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WHEN AND HOW TO USE HYPERBOLE
We use hyperbole widely in our everyday speech, as we can see in the examples above. But, hyperbole has also long been an important staple of literary prose, creative nonfiction, essays, songs, poetry, and dramatic writing too.
Given its non-literal nature, we don’t often find hyperbole used in technical writing where the main focus is on clear expression devoid of emotional content.
Hyperbole is used to bring emphasis, drama and/or humor to a sentence. In a sense, hyperbole defies logic and rationale. It is used when the writer feels the desire to move beyond the commonplace to convey larger than life emotions or feelings
HYPERBOLE IN LITERATURE
Hyperbole has long been a favorite of poets when expressing some powerful emotion or sentiment. It has been a particularly popular figure of speech used when professing love, as the last thing a lover wants is for their profession of love to appear commonplace and ordinary.
W.H. Auden’s poem As I Walked Out One Evening is an excellent example of how hyperbole can be used effectively to express overwhelming love:
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.
These lines form a series of grand and exaggerated declarations of love that increase in ludicrousness as the stanza progresses.
Despite the fact that the poet is laying the groundwork for a crushing disillusionment to follow, hyperbole serves the poem well here in describing the unbridled optimism that so often comes in the first flushes of newfound love.
As well as emphasizing drama and emotion, hyperbole is often used as a comedic device. Literature in English using hyperbole in this manner abounds, so it won’t be difficult to find some good examples to share with your students.
That said, let’s take a look at a few fun examples to get things rolling.
In his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez writes with wry humor:
“At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.”
Or, how about its use in folktales?
Hyperbole is the perfect vehicle to bring humor to yarns and tall tales. The far-fetched plotlines and exaggerated heroism of many fairy and folk tales make it the perfect genre to avail of the larger-than-life nature of hyperbole.
We can see this clearly in the following extract from S.E. Schlosser’s retelling of the folktale 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.”
USING HYPERBOLE IN INDEPENDENT WORK
Once students have developed a good grasp of how hyperbole works through the examination of different examples from literature and daily speech, it’d be worthwhile getting them to have a go at writing some examples of their own.
Not only will it help the students to internalise how this literary device works, but it will help tune them into when and how this device is used in various types of literature.
Not to mention, coming up with original hyperbole is lots of fun for students too.
The Best Hyperbole Activity in the World – Ever!
To get students to practice writing their own examples of hyperbole ask them to think about something that they feel strongly about. It doesn’t matter what emotion is conjured up, as long as it’s a strong one.
Tell the students to think about the emotion that is inspired in them. Is it happiness? Disgust? Desire? Awe?
Then, instruct students to write an imaginatively exaggerated description of it. This will naturally lead to hyperbolic descriptions of the chosen thing.
Hyperbole: Don’t Overdo It!
As we can see, hyperbole is an effective literary device when used appropriately. It can bring intensity and humor to writing, but it is important that it’s used in the right context and with justification.
When teaching students about this device and how to use it, it is crucial that they avoid its overuse in their own writing.
The danger of hyperbolic writing is that, when it’s used indiscriminately, it can erode the meaning of words. Think of phrases such as I’m starving!, for example.
However, when used judiciously, hyperbole can bring considerable color and creativity to the language. Definitely a worthy tool to have in any writer’s toolbox.
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Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.