Lesson: Spotting hyperbole in literature, pop culture, and politics.
hyperbole: an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.” –dictionary.com
Hyperbole is a tool used in literature and rhetoric when you want to make your point in an entertaining or more effective, and not entirely truthful, way.
For instance, if you were telling your friends about the time you almost got eaten by an alligator, you could just say, “One time I almost got eaten by an alligator, but I scared it off by punching its nose.” However, you could make the story even more enticing and memorable if you used hyperbole to exaggerate things just a touch. You could also say, “This truck-sized alligator rushed out of the swamp like an Olympic sprinter. Then it dashed at me, baring its almost metallic, sharp-as-a-rusty-can teeth. But I wasn’t scared at all. I sauntered up to that beast, and I pulled my fist back, and I bopped it on the nose, giving it one heck of a nose bleed. As I stared into the sky victoriously, it whimpered and crawled back into the swamp to go find it’s mommy.”
Which story would you rather listen to?
Hyperbole in literature
Since hyperbole has a way of making a great story greater, it is an oft-used tool in literature. A lot of your favorite stories might only be five pages long without it.
A great example of hyperbole is the description of Paul Bunyan’s winter in the story “Babe, the Blue Ox.”
“Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”
That’s a lot more interesting than just saying, “It was a cold winter.”
One of the most common places we encounter hyperbole is in jokes. Several types of jokes rely on hyperbole to get the laughs out. A famous example is “Yo Mama” jokes.
As in: Yo mama is so fat that her cereal bowl came with a lifeguard.
Now, we aren’t really supposed to believe that your mother’s intense hunger and ability to consume large quantities of food somehow drove her to acquire a cereal bowl so enormous it could fit (and actually was staffed by) a lifeguard. The joke is merely using hyperbole to poke fun at your mother’s (or a proverbial mother’s) waistline.
Let’s look at a couple more:
Yo mama is so ugly that her shadow ran away from her.
Yo mama is so dirty that when she tried to take a bath, the water jumped out and said “I’ll wait.”
The hyperbole in both of these jokes is easy to spot. Shadows can’t move by their own volition, and water is also unable to move on its own or to speak. So you know the jokester is exaggerating to make a humorous effect. Then you chuckle, and a good time is had by all (except, maybe, your mother).
Hyperbole in political rhetoric
However, hyperbole is more difficult to spot, and less funny, when people use it outside of jokes and literature—such as, let’s say, on the campaign trail.
For kicks, let’s take a look at some things a Congresswoman from my home state has said recently. Try to spot the hyperbole she uses.
I spotted “the Saudi Arabia of oil,” “horror picture show” “gangster government,” and “Pelosi healthcare nightmare.” Since, for instance, the American government is not literally made of guys in dark suits sending messages of newspaper-wrapped fish, it’s safe to say Michele Bachmann was using hyperbole.
Hyperbole used for fun makes life more interesting. But when we hear it from people who are supposed to tell us the straight facts, it can be confusing and dangerous. And it’s not just Michele Bachmann, of course. It’s politicians of every stripe.
Hyperbole is a useful tool, so let’s use it. Notice it when it is used effectively in your favorite books. But also be on the look out for hyperbole pop ups in not-so-appropriate arenas.