Rhetoric: Hyperbole


From the Greek "excess," "overstrained praise," etc.

1. Hyperbole is an extravagant statement or assertion not to be taken too seriously or too literally. 

Aristotle observes that hyperboles are the favorite figures of young authors, who love excess and exaggeration, but that philosophers should not use them without a great deal of reserve. Yet hyperbole is used unconsciously by those of vivid imagination whom the world sometimes calls liars and fools.

2. In hyperbole the truth and reality of things are excessively enlarged or diminished. 

An image uncommon in size, either very big or very little, surprises us. This imagining gives the mind a momentary conviction that the object is indeed greater or less than it really is.

a. An example of an hyperbole of  minimizing (meiosis):

This author boasts of having a large mansion and an extensive forest; I assure you, on my honor, that he has not wood enough to make a toothpick, and that a tortoise might make the tour of his house in a quarter of an hour.

b. The hyperbole of magnifying (auxesis) is more common,

as in this example of one Gascon soldier describing another:
Hit him anywhere, and the wound is mortal, for he is all heart.
The same effect follows figurative grandeur or littleness, and hence the hyperbole, which expresses this momentary conviction. A writer, taking advantage of this natural delusion, enriches his description greatly by hyperbole, and the reader relishes the exaggeration as an operation of nature upon a warm fancy.

3. A writer is generally more successful in magnifying by a hyperbole than in diminishing. 

A minimized object may contract the mind and fetter its powers of imagination, while a magnified object may open the mind and unleash imagination.
The following account of the valor of Henry V, by Shakespeare, is extravagantly hyperbolical:
England ne'er had a king until this time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command:
His brandish'd sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings:
His sparkling eyes replete with awful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies,
Than mid-day sun, fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech:
He ne'er lift up his hand, but conquered.

4. Hyperboles lie without deceiving.

Seneca says hyperbole leads the mind to truth by fictions; they convey the sentiment intended, though by expressing it in terms which render it incredible. The hyperbole premises too much in order to make you conceive enough. Sydney Smith's less than kind burst of astonishment when told that a young neighbor was going to marry a very fat woman double his age illustrates the point:
Going to marry her? Going to marry her? Impossible! You mean a part of her: he could not marry her all himself. It would be a case not of bigamy, but trigamy; the neighborhood or the magistrates should interfere. There is enough of her to furnish wives for a whole parish. One man marry her!—it is monstrous. You might people a colony with her, or give an assembly with her, or perhaps take your morning's walk round her,—always provided there were frequent resting-places, and you were in rude health. I once was rash enough to try walking round her before breakfast, but only got half-way and gave it up exhausted. Or you might read the Riot Act and disperse her. In short, you might do anything with her but marry her.
 5. The pitch to which an hyperbole may be carried is a point of great delicacy. 
To carry it too far, is to destroy it. Hyperbole is of the nature of a bow-string, which by immoderate tension, slackens, and frequently has an effect quite contrary to that intended.
The best hyperboles are those which are latent and are not taken for hyperboles. For this reason, they should scarcely ever be used but in a passion, and in the middle of some important incident, such as this hyperbole of Herodotus, speaking of the Lacedaemonians, who fought at Thermopylae:
They defended themselves for some time with the arms that were left them, and at last with their hands and teeth, till the Barbarians, continually shooting, buried them with their arrows.

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