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 (but 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. "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)
- JFK 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)
Concluded on page two