“I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.” Ever hear someone say this? It’s not that they literally want to go out and eat a graceful animal like a horse—it’s that they want to tell you just how dang hungry they are. But hyperbole like this is far more than mere exaggeration. It’s a literary device you can incorporate into the way you write or speak. Done right, you can use it for dramatic effect, for humor, or simply to make a line pop out from the rest of an email. Done wrong, hyperbole can also lead to misinterpretation or land you in hot water on social media.
Ready to find out the difference between using hyperbole the right way and the wrong way? Let’s figure it out in what will surely be the greatest blog post you’ve ever read.
What Is Hyperbole?
Hyperbole is a statement or concept exaggerated to the point of absurdity.
The latter point—absurdity—is key. Without the element of the impossible, hyperbole doesn’t have the same ring.
For instance, “I’m so hungry, I could eat three plates of pasta,” is an exaggeration when you know you’re only hungry enough for two and a half. “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse” is an obvious absurdity and therefore fits neatly into a working hyperbole definition.
Examples of Hyperbole in Poetry
To help clarify, let’s look at some specific hyperbole examples where it works best: poetry. Whether you’re writing a narrative poem or something more abstract, you can use this device to illustrate deeper concepts:
- “The brightness of her cheek would shame those same stars.” This hyperbole from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is an exaggeration to absurdity. Of course stars don’t feel shame. But by personifying stars with a feeling, Shakespeare uses hyperbole to get across just how infatuated Romeo has become.
- “I will love you until the seas run dry.” A line out of Robert Burns, this hyperbole uses the visual metaphor of barren seas to demonstrate his commitment. W.H. Auden used a similar line, with one poem’s speaker saying, “I will adore you until Africa and China meet.”
On the surface, Shakespeare’s use of hyperbolic romance seems like a sweet way for Romeo to tell Juliet that she’s beautiful. But remember that these are two young, star-crossed lovers. Their infatuation is also a problem, thanks to their quarreling families, the Montagues and Capulets. Shakespeare uses hyperbole to give voice to Romeo, true, but this same infatuation (spoiler alert!) dooms his character to a tragic ending. It makes the hyperbole all the more effective.
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Examples of Hyperbole in Satire
Hyperbole in satire demonstrates its versatility. It can go beyond dramatic effect. In fact, you might argue that it’s best used in humor, particularly when lampooning something far more serious.
- In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, a “doomsday machine” scenario threatens to wipe out the human race. In a demonstration of how well hyperbole works in satire, Kubrick said he initially planned to write a traditional thriller. But the subject matter of total nuclear annihilation became so absurd he thought the film couldn’t work as anything but satire. From the opening “refueling” scene, where two airplanes, ahem, connect as romantic music plays, to the ending annihilation, the film is a clear example of working from a hyperbolic premise to milk as much humor from the satire as possible.
- “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This absurd statement from George Orwell’s Animal Farm helps nail home the hyperbolic take on Stalinist Russia.
In both examples of hyperbole in satire, the creators start from a hyperbolic premise. In Animal Farm, it’s the idea that animals can build societies just like Stalinist Russia. In Dr. Strangelove, it’s playing out a scenario that threatens to wipe out the human race.
Good satirists know how to lampoon real-life events by taking relatable material and making it absurd. And it doesn’t only make for a great premise—it helps illustrate what’s funny and absurd about the world we live in.
Examples of Hyperbole in Writing
Not all hyperbole needs to be poetic hyperbole. You can use it in prose, fiction, and even everyday words to get your point across.
Colleen Hoover’s Verity
Consider a recent bestseller by Colleen Hoover: Verity. In the novel, the narrator is filling in for a bestselling author, working through her old office to see if there are any notes to work from. As the narrator describes it:
“When I step inside [the author’s office], it feels like I’m rummaging around her underwear drawer.”
An absurd comparison? Of course—an office is nothing like an underwear drawer. But using the underwear drawer as an absurd simile demonstrates just how invasive the narrator feels. She’s working through someone else’s most personal belongings. The point hits home with a degree of vividness that pops off the page.
Consider how the sentence would look without any hyperbole:
“When I step inside [the author’s office], it feels like I’m being invasive, prying somewhere I’m not meant to be.”
There’s still the element of portension, but it lacks the voice and humor of Hoover’s version. We’re holding the reader’s hand and giving them little to chew on. By using a hyperbolic simile, Hoover effectively demonstrates where her character’s head is at, with far more creativity.
Larry Wright’s Hall of Fame Speech
In Larry Wright’s Hall of Fame induction speech, he wanted to illustrate a simple point: when he worked with the Dallas Cowboys, there was one training camp that seemed absolutely crowded with potential players.
That’s the less-creative way to say it. But pay attention to the creative way Larry Wright says it:
Gil Brandt [of the Cowboys] was signing everybody that could walk.
Obviously, not everyone who could walk was signed by the Dallas Cowboys that year. But this simple bit of speechwriting gets the point across effectively, giving the audience a bit of a laugh break.
Daily Turns of Phrase
There’s a good chance you use hyperbole in your daily life without realizing it. Some of it has even entered our cultural lexicon; we say it and hear it, but don’t notice just how crazy it sounds.
For instance, consider the “death” words common in everyday language. We don’t laugh too much, we say “I’m dead.” We don’t say these shoes hurt, we say “these heels are killing me.”
Start looking, and you’ll find hyperbole everywhere. “Yo momma” jokes? Full of hyperbole. No one’s mom is so old that her first boyfriend was Moses. And while hyperbole might not sound intuitive at first, there’s a good chance you already have a good grasp of the concept just from growing up around jokesters.
Making Hyperbole Work for You
Hyperbole is a rare literary device: the kind that only works when you overuse it. If you want to add a little character to your writing—and your speaking—don’t say, “I’m perspiring intensely,” say, “I’m sweating like a pig.”
Try it out. It will be the best thing since sliced bread.
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