Hyperbole and Hype
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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