Intersections: Hyperbole

Intersections is a weekly series dedicated to untangling the knotted ball of maddeningly similar literary devices.

You’ve probably used the phrase “I’m starving!” to express a hunger that’s been building inside you since lunch, even though no one ever starved to death because of a two-hour gap in their food consumption. That’s not starvation. That’s hyperbole!

A fancy word for exaggeration, hyperbole can be used to dramatically emphasize a point you are trying to make. Upping the ante with a well-placed hyperbolic turbo boost increases your chances of inspiring yourself or others to take action against your hunger. “I’m hungry,” while accurate, is not compelling.

“I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” another hyperbolic alternative, features a form hyperbole commonly takes: hyperbole as resolution. Hyperbole is never meant to be taken literally, which makes sense when you’re listening to a 150-pound human claim they could satisfy their hunger by eating an animal that would take the average horsemeat-eating Canadian a year to consume.

“If I don’t get something to eat soon, I will die,” launches you into adynaton territory, a form of hyperbole that only deals with impossibilities. The person who claimed they could eat a horse could eat a horse. However, you can express a genuinely death-beckoning hunger and be an average horsemeat-eating Canadian, but not both.  

No hyperbole is hyperbolic on its own. Our “starving” friend would merely be stating a fact (and therefore not speaking hyperbolically) if they hadn’t had any food in a week, making context a deciding factor in whether or not someone is exaggerating.

Context also matters when hyperbole appears in comparisons. Describing someone’s fist as “solid as a rock,” is a hyperbolic simile, while using this same phrase to describe a secure relationship is plain old simile when you take into account another definition of “solid.”  Accusing someone of being “a cow” is a simplistic way of speaking both metaphorically and hyperbolically if your comparison rests on that someone’s heavy weight.

Metaphors and similes often work off of multiple traits their components share. In the event the person becomes upset because of your earlier statement, you could claim they are cow-like because of their sweet, docile nature. This strips your metaphor of its hyperbolic status, but not you of a friendship.

On the SAT…

Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV, features this line, spoken in reference to the immaturity of a young Prince: “I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one off his cheek.”

As a citizen of the non-fictional planet Earth, you know that humans don’t grow hair on their palms, so you may assume that impossibility makes this insult adynaton. However, the SAT’s Reading section includes passages from fictional works, so watch for fantastical contexts that challenge your judgement of hyperbole.   

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