What is Hyperbole?

Hyperbole—Greek for “overshooting” or “throwing beyond”—is a figure of speech in which obvious exaggeration, not meant to be taken literally, is used for emphasis or strong impression.

Comically defined by Pierre Fabri, an early French rhetorician, as “the figure used for lying,” and referred to as “Loud Lyer” and “Overreacher” by Elizabethan English courtier George Puttenham, the hyperbole has had a contentious history, often being unjustly in disrepute with regards to its relationship with the truth.

However, when not used maliciously, hyperboles are, in fact, lies on the side of the truth, deceits which push one in the direction of veracity, faulty road signs which reorient one’s perspective through disorientation. In the words of Erasmus, “hyperbole says more than reality warrants, yet what is true is understood from the false.”

in a way, a hyperbole is the literary equivalent of a visual caricature: by magnifying certain features, it helps readers/listeners focus their attention on the aspects of interest to the writer/speaker, thus generating in them a more striking effect than the one mere description would produce; the actual effect varies: it can be comical, ironic, persuasive, or serious.

Hyperbole is omnipresent nowadays. You can find many examples of it in:

  • Everyday speech: “these shoes are killing me;” “this book weighs a ton.”
  • Common clichés: “she’s one in a million;” “my brother is the best guy in the world.”
  • Emotional venting: “that moron gave me a parking ticket.”
  • Teenage talk: “he’s super-hot; “it was an epic fail.”
  • Descriptions of weather: “the hot melts your brain.”
  • Advertising slogans: “This is a miracle product;” “have the most amazing experience.”
  • Journalism: “thousands feared dead.”
  • Political speeches: “let’s make ours the best country in the world.”

Below you can find many more examples.

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Examples of Hyperbole

Hyperbole in a Sentence

Example #1: Common Proverbs

As the bird flies, I can count its feathers. (Bengalese proverb)

In his book, Curiosities of Proverbs, Dwight Edwards Marvin dedicates a whole chapter to the “Impossibilities and Absurdities in Proverbs.” Almost all of the proverbs listed under this title feature a hyperbole of two. The meaning of the one quoted above is explained thus: “You cannot deceive me with all your plausible arguments and explanations. I see through your scheme and know your deceitful and knavish purposes.” Here are three more metaphorically hyperbolic proverbs from the world for your pleasure: “deaf people sometimes hear quickly” (Japanese proverb); “the lazy person has no legs” (Arabian); “he takes a spear to kill a fly” (English).

Examples #2-3: Bible Proverbs

It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)

The phrase “eye of a needle” is a metaphor for a very narrow opening. It was part of many common proverbs—hyperbolic themselves—before Jesus made it famous by using it in the aphorism above. The saying is uttered by Jesus to his disciples after a young rich man refuses to sell his possessions and give them to the poor even though he wants to go to Heaven. Here’s another well-known hyperbolic proverb taken from the Bible:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:4)

Example #4: Tall Tales

Within a week of his birth, Paul Bunyan could fit into his father’s clothes. After three weeks, Paul rolled around so much during his nap that he destroyed four square miles of prime timberland. His parents were at their wits’ end! They decided to build him a raft and floated it off the coast of Maine. When Paul turned over, it caused a 75-foot tidal wave in the Bay of Fundy. They had to send the British Navy over to Maine to wake him up. The sailors fired every canon they had in the fleet for seven hours straight before Paul Bunyan woke from his nap! When he stepped off the raft, Paul accidentally sank four warships, and he had to scramble around scooping sailors out of the water before they drowned. (retold by S. E. Schlosser)

Tall tales are a quintessentially American form, probably originated in the bragging contests on the American frontier. Described as “a comic fiction disguised as fact, deliberately exaggerated to the limits of credibility or beyond,” they were popularized by a host of books about a hyperbolized version of Davy Crockett, who—as you know full well from the Disney song—was “raised in the woods, so he knew ev’ry tree” and “kill him a bear when he was only three.” The story above features another typical tall-tale character, this time the legendary Paul Bunyan, a lumberjack so gigantic that he had to be carried by five storks as a newborn.

Example #5: Sports Commentary

Ohhhhhh! My goodness!!! Sorrentine! Hit that one from the parking lot! (Gus Johnson, Vermont vs. Syracuse, March 18, 2005)

Gus Johnson is an American sportscaster, famous for his vehemence and enthusiasm for the basketball game; and, to paraphrase Aristotle’s Rhetoric, hyperbole is vehemence’s best friend. The comment above was made by Johnson after T. J. Sorrentine hit a deep 3-pointer to help his Vermont knock off #4 seed Syracuse in OT during the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. Nowadays, it is part of the repertoire of almost every basketball pundit: most deep threes seem to have been hit from the parking lot during the last decade. True, in the case of Steph Curry, one needs an even more exaggerated hyperbole: “from downtown.”

(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Hyperbole in a Sentence)

Hyperbole in Poetry

Example #1: Christopher Marlowe, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1593)

There I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

Published six years after his death, Christopher’s Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is one of the most beautiful and best-known love poems in the history of the English language. It is also a great example of how young lovers instinctively turn to hyperbole to express their vigorous and life-affirming enthusiasm when stricken with one of Cupid’s arrows. The famous opening couplet already sets the hyperbole-infused tone of the rest of the poem: “Come live with me and be my love/ And we will all the pleasures prove.” After this beautiful invitation, the shepherd proceeds to list all these pleasures, one by one; understandably, each of them is exaggerated. For whether he is talking about making his beloved “beds of roses” and thousand fragrant flower bouquets or somehow manufacturing slippers “with buckles of the purest gold,” he is merely saying one impossible thing after another. And he goes almost overboard in the second-to-last-stanza (not quoted above) in which he claims that his beloved’s meat will be “as precious as the gods do eat” and will be served on “an ivory table.” Considering the fact that this is a poor shepherd we’re talking about, even for a hyperbole, this may be just too much.

Example #2: William Wordsworth, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” (1802)

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

As they were crossing the Westminster Bridge one sunny morning on September 3, 1802, Dorothy and William Wordsworth were amazed at its beauty. In her diary, Dorothy wrote that “the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand Spectacles.” William rearticulated his sister’s feeling in the form of this simple and lovely sonnet. In its essence, it says nothing more but that he has never seen anything more beautiful or more peaceful than the fogless London from the Westminster Bridge. However, Wordsworth reshapes this conventional overstatement in a string of wonderfully phrased hyperboles, which open with the most memorable “Earth has not anything to show more fair” and end with the metaphorically exaggerated cry that “the very houses seem asleep.”

Example #3: W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues” (1938)

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Even though the lover’s speech from W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” (reference) is arguably more representative in terms of the functions and uses of hyperbole, we opted for our list for “Funeral Blues.” Originally written as a satiric poem on the death of a tyrant, it is now considered one of W. H. Auden’s most touching love poems. In it, the lyrical subject mourns the death of a lover, and the only way he/she can express his/her sorrow is through hyperboles. These are its last two stanzas, in which the exaggerations culminate, so as to first express the extent to which his lover meant to the poet (“He was my North, my South, my East and West”) and then to articulate the immensity of the poet’s grief at his departing (“The stars are not wanted now… for nothing now can ever come to any good”).

(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Hyperbole in Poetry)

Hyperbole in Literature

#1: William Shakespeare, Othello III.3.379-382 (1603)

Not poppy nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou ow’dst yesterday.

Just a few moments before Iago says these four verses to himself upon seeing Othello, he realizes just how powerful suspicion can be; and to express this power, he uses a hyperbolic comparison: “Trifles light as air/ Are to the jealous confirmations strong/ As proofs of holy writ.” So, he knows full well that now that he has planted the seed of jealousy inside Othello’ mind, his master will never be able to experience a restful sleep. That’s what he says in these four verses—in exceptionally ornate hyperbolic language.

#2: Edgar Allan Poe, “Ligeia” (1838)

Through a species of unutterable horror and awe, for which the language of mortality has no sufficiently energetic expression, I felt my heart cease to beat, my limbs go rigid where I sat.

The ultimate exaggeration, notes Belgian rhetorician Bernard Dupriez in his Gradus: A Dictionary of Literary Devices, “is to denounce the inadequacy of language.” Unsurprisingly, horror writers often feel the need to do this, since the sights they want to present to their readers are supposed to induce inexpressible—there, we did it again—dread and alarm. In the sentence above, Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t stop at “unutterable horror and awe,” but also adds the periphrastic “for which the language of mortality has no sufficiently energetic expression” to see if he can out-hyperbole the conventional hyperbole. Almost expectedly, he ends the sentence with two more: “I felt my heart cease to beat, my limbs go rigid where I set.”

#3: Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

You are bound to feel some initial ill-effects as you have been rescued from certain death at an improbability level of two to the power of two hundred and seventy-six thousand to one against – possibly much higher.

This strange sentence is spoken by the announcing voice (the “beautiful, charming, devastatingly intelligent” mathematician Trillian) of the Starship Heart of Gold which rescues the two main protagonists of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, after they are thrown out from a Vogon spaceship. It is a last-minute rescue, but Douglas Adams brings that familiar phrase to an absurdly hyperbolic height by using impossibly precise Rabelaisian numbers—and rounding them off with the even funnier “possibly much higher.”

(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Hyperbole in Literature)

Songs with Hyperbole

Example #1. The Sherman Brothers – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (1964)

He traveled all around the world and everywhere he went
He’d use his word and all would say there goes a clever gent
When dukes and Maharajahs pass the time of day with me
I say my special word and then they ask me out to tea

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
Even though the sound of it
Is something quite atrocious
If you say it loud enough
You’ll always sound precocious
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Believe it or not, the, exceptionally—extremely—superbly—impressively hyperbolic word in the title of Merry Poppins’ most famous song was not invented by the Sherman brothers; instead, it was used by them to reproduce the way some people – ironically, American journalists mostly – sounded at the beginning of the 20th century (the time when Mary Poppins is set). In fact, in the movie, Mary Poppins starts singing the song as an answer to a bunch of reporters who surround her in an attempt to find out how she feels after she manages to win a horse race. Apparently, the feeling is so terrific that even the good old regular tall talk (hyperbolic itself) must be taken up a notch. Or five – since that how many words comprise this 34-letter word. Four of them have a Latin etymology, and only one (cali-) is Ancient Greek in origin: 1) super- (meaning “above”); 2) cali- (meaning “beautiful”); 3) fragilistic- (meaning “fragile”/”delicate”); 4) expiali- (meaning “to expiate”/”to atone”); and 5) -docious (meaning “educable”). Literally, then, with Richard Lederer, we can translate the word as “atoning for extreme and delicate beauty [while being] highly educable.” However, we prefer the explanation of Helen Herman who, at least by her own admission (and the OED concurs) was the one who invented this word in a March 10, 1931 Syracuse Daily Orange article titled “A-muse-ings.” It includes, she says, “all words in the category of something wonderful… It implies all that is grand, great, glorious, splendid, superb, wonderful.’” In case you’re wondering: yes, there are a bunch of other hyperboles in the two stanzas excerpted above; but we’ll let you identify them, because, in our opinion, neither of them is as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as, well… supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Example #2. The Pogues – Fairytale of New York (1987)

They’ve got cars big as bars
They’ve got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you;
It’s no place for the old

The ironically-titled 1987 single by the Irish-British punk band The Pogues, Fairytale of New York, has been regularly voted the best Christmas song in various polls in the UK and Ireland. An enduring classic, it takes the form of a conversation between two Irish immigrants on Christmas Eve in New York, and it relates how their American dreams (“I could have been someone”) were crushed by the cruel reality of modern life. The words above are spoken by the girl and express what she expected from the US when she first came; her expectations are phrased in the form of two hyperboles: “they’ve got cars big as bars” and “they’ve got rivers of gold.” Unfortunately, what’s lurking below this promise from the beginning is a disappointment at least as hyperbolic: “but the wind goes right through you.” The last line is an allusion to W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” and is something the two lovers will realize to be true a moment too late. It’s not all bleak though—but we’ll let you find out a

Example #3. OutKast – Ms. Jackson (2000)

Never meant to make your daughter cry
I apologize a trillion times
I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson, I am for real

Dedicated to the mother of Erykah Badu—whom André 3000 dated between 1995 and 1999—Ms. Jackson features one of the most recognizable choruses in recent music history. It’s also one of the many which include a hyperbole of numbers. However, instead of the more usual “million,” OutKast have opted for the much larger—and, thus, even more emphatic—trillion, which makes the hyperbole even more definite. Because—of course, we had to do the math—if you can ask for forgiveness once every minute, you’ll need just a couple of years to apologize a million times; however, even if you are capable of expressing regret every single second, you’ll need no less than 30 millennia “to apologize a trillion times.” So, there’s your definite proof: unless he was one of the prehistoric cave painters, André didn’t apologize to Ms. Jackson a trillion times; but, apparently, he felt so bad about breaking up with her daughter, that if he could, he definitely would have.

(Further Reading: 5 Songs with Hyperbole)

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