Are these really the "ten greatest hyperboles of all time"? We could lie (hyperbolically, of course) and say, "Absolutely!" But sooner or later you'd realize that even the title of this article illustrates the classical figure of exaggeration.
Although we may not have found the greatest examples of hyperbole (yet who's to judge?), these ten passages from stories, poems, essays, speeches, and comedy routines should help you understand some of the ways in which hyperbole can be used to dramatize ideas and convey strong emotions.
Critic Stephen Webb once described hyperbole as "the poor relation of the tropes family, treated like a distant relative whose family ties are questionable at best." Poor, distant, questionable--and juvenile to boot. "Hyperboles are for young men to use," Aristotle said 2,500 years ago. "They show vehemence of character, and this is why angry people use them more than other people."
The Roman rhetorician Quintilian held a more sympathetic view. Hyperbole isn't a deceitful lie, he insisted, but rather "an elegant surpassing of the truth":
Hyperbole lies, but not so as to intend to deceive by lying. . . . It is in common use, as much among the unlearned as among the learned; because there is in all men a natural propensity to magnify or extenuate what comes before them, and no one is contented with the exact truth. But such departure from the truth is pardoned, because we do not affirm what is false. In a word, the hyperbole is a beauty, when the thing itself, of which we have to speak, is in its nature extraordinary; for we are then allowed to say a little more than the truth, because the exact truth cannot be said; and language is more efficient when it goes beyond reality than when it stops short of it.Or in the words of the philosopher Seneca, hyperbole "asserts the incredible in order to arrive at the credible" (On Benefits).
(Institutes of Oratory, A.D. 95)
In defense of hyperbole as a forceful figure of speech, we offer these ten examples of the trope at its best--imaginative, insightful, and appropriately outlandish.
- Monty Python on Being Poor
Michael Palin: You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o'clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day week in, week out. When we got home, our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!
Graham Chapman: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
Terry Gilliam: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o'clock at night, and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked 24 hours a day at the mill for four pence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
Eric Idle: I had to get up in the morning at 10 o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing "Hallelujah."
Michael Palin: But you try and tell the young people today that, and they won't believe ya'.
All: Nope, nope.
(Monty Python, "Four Yorkshiremen," 1974)
- John Kennedy on Thomas Jefferson
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House--with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
(President John F. Kennedy at a White House dinner honoring 49 Nobel Prize winners, April 29, 1962)
- Paul Bunyan's Winter
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.
(opening of the American folktale [or "fakelore," as it's sometimes called] "Babe the Blue Ox")
- Hume on Self-Interest
'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.
(David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739)
- Márquez on Rain
At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.
(Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale, 2003)
- Mencken on the American South
It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal reaches of the now mythical ether. Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles. And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the "progress" it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert."
(H.L. Mencken, "The Sahara of the Bozart," 1917)
- Marvell on Courtship
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
(Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress")
- Burns on Love
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
O I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
(Robert Burns, "A Red, Red Rose," 1788)
- Auden on Endless Love
I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
(W.H. Auden, "As I Walked Out One Evening," 1935)
- Tom Robbins on Playing the Violin
Play for us, you big wild gypsy girl, you who look as if you might have spent the morning digging potatoes on the steppes of Russia; you who surely galloped in on a snorting mare, bareback or standing in the saddle; you whose chicory tresses reek of bonfire and jasmine; you who traded a dagger for a bow; grab your violin as if it were a stolen chicken, roll your perpetually startled eyes at it, scold it with that split beet dumpling you call a mouth; fidget, fuss, flounce, flick, fume–and fiddle; fiddle us through the roof, fiddle us over the moon, higher than rock ‘n’ roll can fly; saw those strings as if they were the log of the century, fill the hall with the ozone of your passion; play Mendelssohn for us, play Brahms and Bruch; get them drunk, dance with them, wound them, and then nurse their wounds, like the eternal female that you are; play until the cherries burst in the orchard, play until wolves chase their tails in the tearooms; play until we forget how we long to tumble with you in the flower beds under Chekhov’s window; play, you big wild gypsy girl, until beauty and wildness and longing are one.
(Tom Robbins, “Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg,” 2005)