Hyperbole and Hype

By Maeve Maddox

I once thought that the slang word hype was a back-formation of the rhetorical term hyperbole because advertisements that “hype” something are often filled with exaggeration.

For example, an untried stage production is advertised as “Broadway’s Biggest Blockbuster.” A shampoo claims it adds “an infinite shine” to hair. A pick-up truck is shown pulling a jet plane. A person drinking a particular soft drink sprouts wings and flies.

All of these selling ploys are examples of hyperbole as well as of hype, but the two words are not related.

Hyperbole comes from a Greek word meaning “excess” or “exaggeration.”

The verb hype, in the sense of aggressively marketing a product with exaggerated enthusiasm, appears to derive from a U.S. slang term of unknown origin meaning “To short-change, to cheat; to deceive, to con, esp. by false publicity.”

The descriptive word hyped, meaning “worked up, stimulated,” as in “You’re really hyped today,” comes from a different source. This kind of “hype” derives from the excited state exhibited by a drug addict under the influence of something injected from a hypodermic needle.

Hyperbole is a rhetorical term that uses an exaggerated or extravagant statement. Many clichés are examples of hyperbole:

I’m hungry enough to eat a horse.
It’s raining cats and dogs.
This suitcase weighs a ton.
Sam’s all bent out of shape because of Jack’s promotion.

As a literary device, hyperbole can be used for humorous effect. Mark Twain is noted for it:

if you are anywheres where it won’t do for you to scratch, why you will itch all over in upwards of a thousand places. –Huckleberry Finn

“I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.”
Old Times on the Mississippi

The genre known as the “tall tale” makes use of extended hyperbole. For example, the plot elements in the Paul Bunyan stories present one exaggeration after the other:

Paul Bunyan was so big as a baby, it took five giant storks to deliver him to his parents’ house. His first bed was a lumber wagon. He screamed so loudly for his meals that nearby frogs took to wearing earmuffs. When Paul grew up, he became a lumberjack and acquired a huge ax. What we know as the Grand Canyon came into existence when Paul took a stroll, dragging his ax behind him.

Used in literature, hyperbole can be a source of humor or heightened emotion. Used in advertising and news reporting, it can be a source of misinformation and fear-mongering.

Many of the terms used in the media to report on political activities seem to be chosen for their scare value. The term “nuclear option” is an example. We open our newspapers (or websites) to headlines like this one:

Senate Votes For Nuclear Option

No, the Senate has not approved dropping an H-bomb. The scary term refers to a plan to reduce the number of votes required to break a filibuster.

Where did such a hyperbolic term for parliamentary procedure come from?

In 2003, then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott proposed the adoption of such a plan, calling it “nuclear.” He was tired of having the opposition block his party’s candidates for district and circuit judge appointments. I suppose he chose the term “nuclear” because he saw the plan as a way to blast through a political logjam.

Politics is not the only area of reporting that makes use of hyperbole to lure readers and viewers.

Weather announcers choose words and phrases associated with disaster to exaggerate the importance of unexceptional seasonal weather events. Ordinary hot summer temperatures become “a possible life-threatening heat wave.” The first hint of snow becomes “the first major snow of the season.”

Hype in advertising is crass and obvious. Consumers can be swept along by it, but they probably recognize it for what it is.

Hyperbole is an amusing and useful literary device that spices conversation and enriches literature, but in advertising and news reporting, it’s often used to evoke fear and dread.

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6 Responses to “Hyperbole and Hype”

  • Rich Wheeler

    Wiktionary.org lists over 400 words prefixed with hyper-. With the prefix being so common, I think it possible that ‘to hype’ came into being without having been backformed from a larger word. One could short-change, cheat, deceive, or con by exaggerating the value of a promised item or service.

    ‘Hyped,’ meaning ‘worked up, stimulated,’ probably derived from ‘hyper,’ which came from ‘hyperactive.’ In my experience, people have used “he’s hyper” with this meaning. “He’s hyped” has invariably meant “enthusiastic” rather than “stimulated.” Here, hyper implies a mindless energy whereas hyped implies excitement resulting from being convinced.

  • ApK

    I would tend to agree with Rich that “hyped up” comes from “hyperactive.”

    But my sense is that advertising hype still likely comes from hyperbole.
    If the origin of the slang term is uncertain, then there is no reason it CAN’T be true, and it seems logical and intuitive, even if some examples of hype don’t literally use hyperbole.

    These are just my opinions born out of logic and intuition, not any special knowledge of the etymology.

  • Tim Davenport

    I think Rich has hit the nail on the head with the etymology of the term ‘hyped,’ that is, derived from the medical prefix ‘hyper,’ or high, excess. Hyperactive, hyperaroused, and hyperaggressive come to mind.

    The example of an excited drug addict is relevant, but I don’t think the term is derived from his use of a HYPOdermic syringe, i.e., for injecting under the skin subcutaneously. In any case, it’s more likely the drug addict would be using this syringe to ‘mainline,’ or inject directly into a vein for a quicker, more intense hit.

  • John

    I came across this word when I was reading some articles about a new device of an important brand. For example, the company has a stake in raising “hype”- a sort of exhilarating waiting among customers – around its new product.

  • thebluebird11

    Agree with Rich and ApK about hyper and hyped. The first thing that came to my mind was that the words were shortened from hyperactive. The drug connection never entered my mind until you mentioned it, especially since not all injected drugs cause hyperactivity, and in fact many cause quite the opposite, which is a good thing for anesthesiologists and surgeons.
    Also agree with ApK that if the origin of the word is not clear, then it could be related to hyperbole. It’s not a big leap.

  • venqax

    Re hyped coming from hyperactive: The first test would be which came first. If *hyped* was being used before the word hyperactive was, then obviously the last can’t be the source of the first.

    Also, while injected drugs can do almost anything, it is quite possibly true that those with “speedy” effects of various sorts were what people were most familiar with in the past.

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