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Word Nerd: H is for Hyperbole

Written by Rebecca Christian

Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect, and I, for one, adore it. Okay maybe that's hyperbolic, but I do like it a lot; once after I delivered a eulogy for a funeral, I was told by one mourner that I did such a good job of accentuating the positive, eliminating the negative and not messing with Mr. In-Between, she didn't even recognize  the deceased.


The cover for The Andrews Sisters "Accentuate the Positive" record; Al Jarreau, Chet Baker, and Bing Crosby are among the many who have memorably covered this song.


Here's an example of hyperbole from the Trad Home article "Rediscovering a Classic," May 2008 (note the words in bold):

"When Lynn and Frank Ehret moved to San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood just a little more than two years ago, they began with the best; a stately 1903 home by architect Albert Farr, who once designed a home for writer Jack London and whose addresses are coveted for their enduring beauty and their many heart-stopping details."


Isn't this a heart-stopping photo of writer Jack London? He looks so young and fresh and earnest.

"Best" is subjective, and when we say "heart-stopping" we want to wow you, not trigger a myocardial infarction. When you use hyperbole, you are writing figuratively, not literally. And while we're on the subject, doesn't it chap your heinie when someone says "literally" when they mean "figuratively," as in "he literally flew out of the house" or "she literally blew up like a balloon"? I'm guessing your heinie isn't literally chapped, though, since it's almost July.

Another example of hyperbole is from a Trad Home piece about a gorgeous Colorado garden, in which Robin Williams, not the frenetic funny guy but the renowned English garden designer by the same name, was asked by a homeowner to design her garden, and he replied, "A thousand horses couldn't keep me away." Follow this link to see the figuratively heart-stopping garden:

As long as I've mounted the horse, I might as well canter on with my Anglican/equine theme, using this classic example of hyperbole from the bard himself:  "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" Of course, Richard III speaks that immortal line when he's been unhorsed on a battlefield, so maybe he was in such mortal danger he literally would have given his kingdom for a horse. Is it hyperbole, dear reader? And is it hyperbolic or merely presumptuous and a little affected for me to call you "dear"? BTW, my favorite version of Richard lll was a brave little blackbox production put on in the back of a bookstore in a Chicago suburb in the nineties; the fact that there were fewer people in the audience than in the cast didn't make it any less magnificent, maybe more so.


A poster from the 1955 movie of Richard lll with Laurence Oliver

Of course, exaggeration is in the eye of the beholder, and  at Trad Home we are held to stringent standards by Copy Chief Cynthia Mitchell, who turns a gimlet eye on any description that includes the word "perfect," such as "a perfect refuge," "a perfect design," "a perfect chair." Often she'll suggest dialing "perfect" down half a notch to "ideal," noting that nothing in this life is perfect.

Alas, the lady is right about that. Even "ideal" is pushing the figurative envelope.

Almost as fun as hyperbole is its opposite, understatement ("Houston, we've had a problem."). More on that when we get to "U is for Understatement." If you know of any good examples, send them along!



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