We all know what it means to exaggerate. The word comes from Latin:
ex= “thoroughly” +
aggerare “heap, up” [ad- “toward” + gerere “carry”].
But like many concepts in English we also have a Greek derived word with similar meaning: “Hyperbole”: Gk huperbole, huper, “above” + bole, “throw”.
But “hyperbole” is sometimes just used to mean the same as exaggeration, it is often used to identify an intentional literary or speech device which is not meant to be taken literally. Thus here are the common definitions of “hyperbole”:
- Intentional Exaggeration
- Intentional Exaggeration not intended to be taken literally
As a communication tool, hyperbole can be used in the following ways:
- To grab attention
- To emphasize a contrast
- To deceive
A hyperbole is effective at contrasting one idea against another — it makes their differences clear albeit with gross exaggeration. This can wake up the listener and help them realize that the speaker is introducing a new paradigm. Whereas if a speaker uses slow, careful, caveat-laden comparisons and descriptions to contrast two concepts, a listener may not really get their point or may get tired of listening. “Hyperbole” is a great rhetorical tool. It makes the contrasting idea easy to remember and often easy to apply. Such is the simple nature of the human mind.
Well that is all great for the mind ready to be moved. Nonetheless, if the listener has no desire to be swayed, they may point out the exaggeration of the hyperbole and focus only on its inaccuracies. They may not forgive the rhetoric. Hyperbole is a rhetoric tool but it disobeys all sorts of logic rules. But when the goal of the communication is victory and not truth, a competitor will choose their weapon appropriately.
Finally, some geometry to explain the picture used in this post. As I said, the etymology of “hyperbole” is:
“Hyperbole”: Gk huperbole . to huper, “above” + bole, “throw”.
When we throw an object, it follows a certain geometric shape — a parabola which is related to a hyperbola. “Hyperbola” has the exact same etymology as hyperbole. While reviewing the definitions of hyperbola and parabola, I found that they and circles and ellipses were simply sections of a cone. But none of the definitions I found were elegant — none put explained the differences in these shapes in clear, yet concise terms. So I will offer Sabio’s elegant definition of Conic Sections below:
Four geometric figures are determined by the intersection of a (non-vertex) plane with the sides (nappes) of a cone. The figure types are determined by the acute angle formed by the plane and the cone’s axis.
Hyperbola = 0 degrees (parallel axis) to degree of Nappe Angle
Parabola = degree of Nappe Angle
Ellipse = degree of Nappe Angle to 90 degrees
Circle = 90 degrees (perpendicular to axis)
Note: for simplicity I limited to planes which do not include the vertex of the cone. Otherwises Lines and a Point must be included as possible conic sections.
Math folks, please help me if I have erred. Others, if you have read this far, let me know what you think about the literary tool of hyperbole.
See other “Word!” posts, here.