Definition of Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a figure of speech and literary device that creates heightened effect through deliberate exaggeration. Hyperbole is often a boldly overstated or exaggerated claim or statement that adds emphasis without the intention of being literally true. In rhetoric and literature, hyperbole is often used for serious, comic, or ironic effect.

For example, lyrics to The Ballad of Davy Crockett by Thomas W. Blackburn contain hyperbole:

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree
Kilt him a be ‘are [bear] when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier

The audience isn’t supposed to believe that this character truly knew “every tree” or that he literally killed a bear when he was “only three.” Instead, hyperbole is used to exaggerate Davy Crockett’s frontier experience and make him seem larger than life. Hyperbole is a frequently used literary device in tall tales, legends, and folk stories. The audience is aware that such claims are to emphasize the traits of the characters and not to be taken literally.

Common Examples of Hyperbole in Everyday Speech

Many people use hyperbole as a figure of speech to make something seem larger or more important than it actually is. Such exaggeration or distortion can help express strong emotion, emphasize a point, or even evoke humor. Here are some common examples of hyperbole in everyday speech:

  • I’m so hungry that I could eat a horse.
  • That purse looks like it cost a million dollars.
  • I Love You to the moon and back.
  • He feels buried under a mountain of work.
  • I’m dying of thirst.
  • That dog is the cutest thing alive.
  • She loves him more than life itself.
  • This suitcase weighs a ton.
  • He heard an ear-splitting shriek.
  • This race is going to be the death of me.
  • I’m so tired that I could sleep for a week.
  • That song is the worst thing I have ever heard.
  • This room is so cold that I’m getting hypothermia.
  • i am addicted to skateboarding.
  • She is more beautiful than the moon and stars.

Examples of Hyperbole in Advertising

Many advertising campaigns and slogans feature hyperbole as a way to attract customers to their products. Here are some examples of hyperbole in well-known advertisements:

  • When you’re here, you’re family. (Olive Garden)
  • Breakfast of champions (Wheaties)
  • The king of beers (Budweiser)
  • The best a man can get (Gillette)
  • When there is no tomorrow (FedEx)
  • Nothing runs like a Deere. (John Deere)
  • Tastes so good, cats ask for it by name. (Meow Mix)
  • Taste the rainbow (Skittles)
  • america runs on Dunkin’ (Dunkin’ Donuts)
  • Red Bull gives you wings (Red Bull)

Famous Examples of Hyperbole in Movie Lines

Hyperbole is effective in creating movie lines that are humorous and/or dramatic, which makes them memorable as well for the audience. Here are some famous examples of hyperbole in well-known movie lines:

  • Love means never having to say you’re sorry. (Love Story)
  • I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight. (The Devil Wears Prada)
  • I’m the king of the world! (Titanic)
  • As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again (Gone with the Wind)
  • To infinity and beyond! (Toy Story)
  • I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! (Network)
  • You sit on a throne of lies. (Elf)
  • Can I use the facilities? Because being pregnant makes me pee like Seabiscuit! (Juno)
  • You can’t! It’s impossible! I’m far too busy, so ask me now before I again become sane. (The Incredibles)
  • What is this? A school for ants? (Zoolander)
  • There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy. (The First Wives Club)
  • The best thing about visiting the President is the food! Now, since it was all free, and I wasn’t hungry but thirsty, I must’ve drank me fifteen Dr. Peppers. (Forrest Gump)
  • You’ll shoot your eye out. (A Christmas Story)
  • We are going to pull off the true crime of the century. We are going to steal the moon! (Despicable Me)

Difference Between Hyperbole and Overstatement

Hyperbole and overstatement are often used interchangeably, and they can serve as synonyms for each other. However, overstatement and hyperbole have subtle differences in their use and intended effect. An overstatement is an exaggeration or a statement in excess of what most would consider reasonable. A hyperbole is also an exaggeration, yet it is often more extreme than an overstatement and its intended effect is as a literary or rhetorical device. Both overstatement and hyperbole are figures of speech and are not meant to be understood literally. Hyperbole, however, is utilized as a device in literature and rhetoric, not just a form of figurative language.

Examples of Hyperbole in Literature

Hyperbole is effective as a literary device in many ways. By exaggerating something in an extreme way, whether it is a character’s traits, writer’s tone, theme or idea, hyperbole can capture a reader’s attention. In addition, it can cause the reader to question a narrator’s reliability, reflect on the writer’s true intention, or provide a level of absurd humor for entertainment.

Here are some examples of hyperbole in literature and its effect as a literary device:

Example 1: A Modest Proposal (Jonathan Swift)

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

Swift’s satirical essay reflects his view of the oppressive policies and attitudes toward Ireland and the poor on the part of the British people and overall aristocracy in the early eighteenth century. This is one of the most famous hyperbolic passages in literature, as Swift suggests selling and using Irish children as a food source to relieve the economic plight of the Irish people. Of course, this “proposal” is a figure of speech and intended as an extreme exaggeration rather than a literal solution. However, the practical and almost casual tone with which Swift delivers his hyperbole is as shocking for readers as what he appears to be suggesting. As a literary and rhetorical device in the essay, hyperbole achieves a serious and ironic effect for the reader.

Satirists often rely on hyperbole to emphasize a point and focus a reader’s attention on a socio-political or economic problem. Unfortunately, there were people in Swift’s time that made a literal interpretation of his modest proposal. This caused backlash among certain members of the aristocracy due to their misunderstanding of his hyperbole. However, for a modern audience, rather than discounting Swift’s essay as something ridiculous, his hyperbolic proposal achieves its intended effect by causing the reader to reflect on the underlying problems that would result in such a dramatic literary essay–both in Swift’s time and today.

Example 2: Sonnet 147 (William Shakespeare)

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And, frantic-mad with evermore unrest,
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed.
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

In this Shakespearean sonnet, the poet utilizes hyperbole as a literary device to describe his love and desire for his beloved. The poet exaggerates his feelings to the point of claiming that they make him ill and mad beyond cure. Shakespeare realizes that his audience understands that the poet does not literally mean what he is saying. However, the sentiment behind such hyperbole can be interpreted in two ways.

First, readers can interpret the hyperbolic lovesickness as the poet’s method of describing the way infatuation and desire, especially if unrequited, robs people of their reason and logic. This passion and preoccupation can figuratively feel like illness or madness that grows exponentially and is without a cure. In this sense, the intended effect of hyperbole as a literary device would be relatively serious. Second, readers can interpret this hyperbolic lovesickness as the poet’s way of ironically expressing how people feel when infatuated or impassioned. In this case, Shakespeare would be satirizing such love and romantic poetry as well through hyperbole, emphasizing the significance of the final couplet.

Example 3: The Foreigner (Larry Shue)

ELLARD. That’s my favorite name. If I ever catch me that chipmunk,
that’s what he’s gonna be— Buddy the chipmunk.
CATHERINE. Ellard, you couldn’t catch a chipmunk if all its legs were
broken and it was glued to the palm of your hand.

In Shue’s play, the character Catherine utilizes hyperbole to reveal to the audience her perception of her brother’s intelligence and ability. Such an extremely exaggerated statement not only indicates the witty humor of the playwright, but also creates an absurd and memorable image for the audience. In this case, Shue’s hyperbolic dialogue is designed for comic effect and to showcase personality traits of the characters onstage. Literary devices such as hyperbole are valuable in dramatic literary works that are meant to be performed for an audience. Hyperbole allows the playwright to emphasize aspects of certain characters and their relationship to each other. This enhances audience understanding of the play and the writer’s intended meaning.

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