What Are the Different Uses for Hyperbole?

Dan Harkins

Writing about the uses of hyperbole can be as hard as roping a star or as easy as pie — depending on a person's mastery of rhetorical language and playfulness of spirit. A hyperbole is an exaggerated figure of speech, not for literal translation but for effect. Derived from the Greek word for exaggeration, hyperbole can be used in a variety of ways to add color to sentences, whether they're part of a literary work or just ordinary discourse.

Shakespeare used hyperbole in many of his plays.
Shakespeare used hyperbole in many of his plays.

Common uses of hyperbole dot the lexicon and often become cliches, which are usually frowned upon in original literary works. A person might say "Those two are thick as thieves" or "The bag weighs a ton." It is understood that the bag does not literally weigh a ton, but that it is very heavy. Another example is "That man is as dumb as a rock."

Commonly used forms of hyperbole often become cliches.
Commonly used forms of hyperbole often become cliches.

Despite the potential for cliche, equating to mainstream overuse, hyperboles are a tool used by many artists and public speakers to get their points across. This can range from the simple narrative use of hyperboles to strike a certain mood or historic era to poetry that moves the mind to new heights of emotion and understanding. Unfortunately, the more effective and time-honored the execution of a certain hyperbole, the more its potential to become cliched and thrown out of critical favor.

When a certain hyperbole is first used, that is often when its novelty is most effective, original, and thought-provoking. The first writers or public speakers to say that they were hopping mad or nearly died laughing won the most fans. Recent uses of the phrases, however, might be panned as derivative and unimaginative.

Many famous purveyors of hyperbole are household names, from Shakespeare to American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in The Concord Hymn, "Here once the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard round the world." Comedy also benefits from hyperbole's emphasis on exaggeration for effect: "Your mother is so poor, she can't even afford to pay attention."

Everyday conversation is where the most hyperbole is used, however. A person might tell his neighbor that his headache is roaring like a freight train; a boss could inform an employee that her report is due yesterday when everyone knows it's tomorrow. A wife might want her spouse to know how his attitude is really starting to grate on her nerves.

Some novelists use hyperbole as a literary device.
Some novelists use hyperbole as a literary device.

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