Definition of Hyperbole
Hyperbole is the use of obvious and deliberate exaggeration. Hyperbolic statements are often extravagant and not meant to be taken literally. These statements are used to create a strong impression and add emphasis. We use hyperbole frequently in everyday language, saying things like “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow,” or “We had to wait forever for the bus.” Hyperbole sometimes makes use simile or metaphor to create the effect of exaggeration, such as “He’s as strong as an ox.”
The definition of hyperbole comes from the Greek for “to throw beyond” or “exaggeration.”
Common Examples of Hyperbole
As noted above, there are many examples of hyperbole in common speech. One of the most frequently used hyperboles in English is the word “literally”—many people in contemporary speech use this word when they actually mean the opposite, i.e., figuratively. An example would be “I was literally starving.” In this case, the speaker is probably not suffering from malnutrition, but instead was merely quite hungry, and thus was only figuratively starving. There was some controversy recently when definition of the word “literally” was updated to include the definition “to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.” Thus, “literally” has become one of the primary ways to exaggerate and hyperbolize a certain statement.
Here are some more common examples of hyperbole:
- The suitcase weighed a ton.
- I’m so angry, I could kill him!
- I’ve asked you not to do that a thousand times.
- If he doesn’t call by tonight, I will absolutely die.
- She’s as skinny as a toothpick.
Some jokes also take advantage of hyperbole, like the “Your Mama” jokes. For example:
- Your mama is so lazy she got a remote controller to operate her remote.
- Your mama is so old her social security number is 1.
- Your mama is so ugly they didn’t give her a costume when she auditioned for Star Wars.
Significance of Hyperbole in Literature
Authors use hyperbole to evoke strong feelings or emphasize a point. Hyperbole can be used to overstate any type of situation or emotion, and can be used humorously or seriously. Hyperbole is most often found in poetry, as poets use it to make comparisons and describe things in more embellished terms. However, it is commonly used in prose and plays as well.
Examples of Hyperbole in Literature
The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath?
(“Sonnet 99” by William Shakespeare)
In this sonnet, Shakespeare imagines that the sweet smell of a violet has come from his lover’s breath. This is a clear overstatement, as it is impossible for nature to have taken its smell from the lover. In fact, his lover’s breath is almost surely not as sweet-smelling as a violet, yet Shakespeare’s love overcomes reason. This hyperbole example gives us greater insight into Shakespeare’s all-encompassing love for the subject of the poem.
TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
(“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe)
In his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allen Poe writes from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. This narrator displays hyperbolic tendencies throughout the story, as he is subject to paranoia and delusions. This excerpt is the first paragraph of the story; the narrator images himself able to hear “all things in heaven and in the earth,” as well as “many things in hell.” Clearly, as an audience we know that the narrator is not able to hear all things. Yet this belief plays a key role in the story, as ultimately the narrator conflates his hyperbolic imagination with reality.
It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.
(Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut)
Kurt Vonnegut survived the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II, and used those experiences for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. In this excerpt, the protagonist emerges from his shelter to find total destruction, and makes the hyperbolic statement that “Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals.” Vonnegut uses hyperbole here to try to convey how completely the city was ruined. Of course there was more than just mineral matter in Dresden after the bombing, yet Vonnegut wants the reader to imagine how drastic the change was. Note that while this sentence is hyperbolic, it is very plausible that the sky was indeed black with smoke and that the stones were still hot twenty-four hours later, and thus the rest of the description is not hyperbolic.
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
(“The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz)
Stanley Kunitz uses many examples of hyperbole in his striking poem, “The Portrait.” The two most notable hyperboles are Kunitz’s assertion that he “could hear him thumping” and “In my sixty-fourth year / I can feel my cheek / still burning.” (Note how similar the former hyperbole is to Edgar Allen Poe’s madman who can hear everything, including a beating heart long after it has stopped beating). The latter hyperbole demonstrates just how strong of an impression his mother’s slap left on him. Though his cheek is no longer literally burning, the memory of it is as strong as ever.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall…
(“Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins)
Billy Collins uses hyperbole in his poem “Forgetfulness” in imagining that a forgotten name is so far from the speaker’s memory “it has floated away down a dark mythological river.” Collins then extends this hyperbolic effect by saying that the total loss of memory includes even the name of the river.
Test Your Knowledge of Hyperbole
1. Choose the correct hyperbole definition:
A. A literal statement.
B. Intentional and obvious exaggeration.
C. A curved line.
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2. Which of the following excerpts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth contains examples of hyperbole?
MACBETH: Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
MACBETH: Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
WITCH: By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
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3. Consider the following excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Concord Hymn.”
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Why is this an example of hyperbole?
A. It is not possible to be sure of exactly where the embattled farmers once stood.
B. Everyone in the world was literally able to hear a gunshot at the same time.
C. It is not possible to hear a shot all the way around the world; instead this means that there were widespread consequences of the shot.
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