Hyperbole (hi-PURR-boh-lee), from the ancient Greek huperbolē, “to throw beyond,” is a quantitative or qualitative exaggeration used for dramatic, poetic, or humorous effect. It’s a common figure of speech that adds flavor to writing. Writers use it to engage readers with humor or catch them off-guard with an unbelievable image.
Examples of Hyperbole
To create hyperbole, start with a plain and true statement, then expand until it is no longer plausible. Consider this example:
Fatima is hungry—really hungry—and her favorite snack is wheat crackers. She might tell a friend, “I’m so hungry, I could eat the entire cracker aisle at the supermarket!” Obviously she’s exaggerating; not even a competitive eater could eat an entire aisle of food. Fatima is simply trying to get her friend to understand that she is much hungrier than usual.
Some hyperbole is so prevalent in everyday speech, people might no longer recognize it:
- “Our professor is older than dirt.”
- “This backpack weighs a ton.”
- “This is the best day ever.”
- “I was in line at the RMV forever.”
Hyperbole and Other Figures of Speech
Hyperbole vs. Simile
A simile is a figure of speech based on comparison, whereas hyperbole is based on exaggeration. To say that someone is like a saint is simile; saying they are more patient than a saint is hyperbole.
Hyperbole vs. Litotes
While hyperbole makes a mountain out of a molehill, litotes understate a position by contradicting the opposite stance. While taking a delicious sip of coffee in a new cafe, one might declare that it’s “not too bad.” That’s litotes. Saying the coffee is “the sweet nectar of the gods” is hyperbole.
Hyperbole vs. Meiosis
Where hyperbole exaggerates, meiosis minimizes. Meiosis diminishes the gravity or severity of something, either satirically, politically, or even affectionately. Referring to an unplanned pregnancy as a “surprise” or a war as a “conflict” are examples of meiosis.
Hyperbole vs. Idiom
Idioms are like hyperboles; both are phrases that shouldn’t be taken literally. For example, saying it’s “raining cats and dogs” doesn’t mean four-legged friends are actually falling from the sky. Most English-speaking people understand this means the rain is heavy. Despite the overstatement, this idiom is not an exaggeration because it has a meaning outside its actual words. With hyperbole, statements make sense; they are simply blown out of proportion. So, saying “It’s raining so hard, we need an ark,” which evokes the biblical story of Noah, would be hyperbole.
Hyperbole in Popular Culture
Hyperbole has always pervaded human communication, and most often, it is applied to expressions of romantic love. Prevalent in all media, this language often concerns fantastic-to-impossible feats the author or speaker would complete for their loved one.
In the film The Princess Bride, based on the novel of the same title, Princess Buttercup is accused of not being truly devoted to her lost love, Westley. Infuriated by this claim, she says “I died that day,” referring to when she learned Westley was killed by the Drear Pirate Roberts.
Love-related hyperbole is very common in pop music as well. In “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” the Proclaimers pledge to walk a total of 1,000 miles to get to their beloved(s). Meatloaf promises to move mountains according to his sweetheart’s whim in “I’d Lie for You (and That’s the Truth).” In his song “Grenade,” Bruno Mars claims he would catch a grenade, throw his hand on a blade, jump in front of a train, and take a bullet straight through his brain for his beloved—someone who, unfortunately, would not make the same vows to him.
Hyperbole in Folklore
Many legendary characters in folklore, build up over time via hyperbole, are supposedly based on real people. These kinds of stories are considered “tall tales”—hyperbolic narratives to honor local heroes—which are most commonly spread in North American, European, and Australian cultures.
Take real-life French-Canadian lumberjack Fabian Fournier, believed to be the inspiration for the Paul Bunyan folk tale. Bunyan is said to be a gigantic, superhuman lumberjack who harvested millions of timber wood and had a giant ox for a pet. But was Fournier really six feet tall (some tales even say eight)? It’s possible. However, he probably didn’t create the Grand Canyon with his axe, and he certainly wasn’t delivered to his parents by five storks, as other stories claim.
Examples of Hyperbole in Literature
1. Bhartrihari, “A Man May Tear a Jewel”
Composed in Sanskrit, this short but dense poem uses superhuman exaggerations to illustrate how difficult it is to change the mind of an ignorant person who believes they are right:
A man may tear a jewel
From a sea monster’s jaws,
Cross a tumultuous sea
Of raging tides,
Or twine garlandwise
A wrathful serpent on his head.
But no man can alter
The thoughts of an obstinate fool.
According to the poet, one would have an easier time fighting a sea monster for a treasure or wrapping an aggressive snake around their head than convincing someone that they’re wrong.
2. William Shakespeare, Macbeth
After killing King Duncan in Act II, Scene 2, Macbeth realizes there is no way to absolve himself of his sin:
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.
The guilt makes Macbeth feel as though his hands will never again be clean—a hyperbolic sentiment in itself. He emphasizes this by saying that if he attempted to “wash his hands,” he would turn the green sea red. This powerful hyperbole, which marks the apex of the play’s rising action, underlines the guilt and disgust Macbeth experiences after killing King Duncan.
3. Judith Ortiz Cofer, “Quinceañera”
… My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. …
In this stanza, Cofer describes her mother’s hairstyling technique as nailing the hair to her skull. Obviously hyperbolic, Cofer is conveying how uncomfortable the application of hairpins and braiding of her hair feels.
4. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
In his (in)famous novella, Conrad seems to praise and criticize imperialism at once. After 30 days at sea, Marlow, Conrad’s narrator/protagonist, encounters a group of Africans who have worked themselves sick to build a railroad and have been left for dead.
I had to wait in the station for ten days—an eternity.
While 10 days is much shorter than an eternity, Conrad is using hyperbole to describe his protagonist’s discomfort. Perhaps Marlow, a willing participant in exploitative colonialism, feels guilty when seeing this system in action. Thus, his time at the station seems to drag on.
5. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
This intensely dark comedy is based on the author’s real experiences in World War II. Vonnegut was interned in Dresden, Germany, and survived the city’s bombing, which killed around 25,00 civilians.
There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.
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.
It almost seems strange to call this hyperbole, as 90 percent of the city’s center was destroyed. However, Dresden wasn’t a literal “big flame,” and the sky, while darkened by smoke, likely wasn’t entirely blacked out. Vonnegut is using exaggeration to help the readers understand how intense and horrifying that moment was.
Further Resources on Hyperbole
Learn about the rich, colorful hyperbole of “the dozens” (aka “your mama” jokes) in Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap by Elijah Wald.
Check out “What Is Hyperbole?” from the YouTube channel Flocabulary, which uses cute cartoons and catchy hip-hop music to educate viewers about literary terms.
Christian Burgers’s article “HIP: A Method for Linguistic Hyperbole Identification in Discourse” proposes a test to determine whether or not a figure of speech is hyperbolic.