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Have you ever been in a conversation in which a person has said something like:
I haven’t seen you in a thousand years!
That workout was so exhausting my feet are about to fall off
I’m so hungry I could eat all the food in this restaurant
None of those statements could literally be true—no human stomach, for example, can hold the entire food supply of a busy restaurant. Rather than aiming for real-life accuracy, these expressions are examples of hyperbole or the art of using exaggeration to convey an amplified personal response. In addition to hearing examples of hyperbole all the time in common speech, hyperbole is also an important part of literary prose, dramatic writing, and poetry.
The term hyperbole has ancient origins. It combines one Greek term that means “over” and another that means “cast” or “throw.” So hyperbole describes the sense of over-reaching, or grasping beyond what is necessary in order to describe a certain feeling, an experience, or response.
There’s a great example of hyperbole in the famous scene from Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo sees his true love on her balcony in the moonlight. Since falling in love is by no means an everyday experience, so Romeo must communicate with language that reaches past the everyday. He sees her looking up at the sky and says:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
Without hyperbole, you’d have to hear Romeo saying something more grounded and realistic, like “I find myself significantly attracted to that appealing-looking young lady, her eyes are very beautiful indeed. Thankfully, Shakespeare instead employs hyperbole so that Romeo can describe her eyes as bright enough to make the stars in the sky want to offer her a job:
“her eyes in heaven / Would through the airy region stream so bright / That birds would sing and think it were not night.” (2.1.19-22)
Juliet’s eyes, to Romeo, are so gobsmackingly beautiful that they could be put in the sky in place of the stars—an impossible concept! And what’s more, Romeo says that if her eyes were up there in the dark sky with the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, all the sleeping birds on the planet would feel the light they cast, think that the sun had risen, and then start chirping.
As science will confirm, no eyes in human history have ever been bright enough to serve as a bird wake-up call. But the hyperbolic claim that Romeo makes in that special moment helps the audience understand that what he’s feeling is anything but commonplace. Simply looking at Juliet is an experience so overwhelming that it defies logic. And anyone who’s ever fallen madly in love will probably confirm that it’s by no means an everyday experience. Rational speech cannot describe it. You need hyperbole to convey the sense that what’s happening is larger than life.
Further Resources for Teachers:
The literary terms that is opposite to hyperbole is understatement. We've created a video, "What is Understatement?", that pairs well with this video. Hyperbole can also be used to ironic effect in Satires.