William F. Buckley, Jr. once gave a speech at UR in which he discussed the compulsion politicians have for overstatement. He called this tendency the “hyperbolic imperative” and unfortunately lost the attention of a large number of students. The word makes a useful distinction between outright lying and simple exaggeration. Hyperbole in practice is not all bad by any means; the best of writers make use of it. And it is also a word best pronounced by not looking at it.
That insight will prove useful to me, personally, whenever I hear too much news; then I slip into to thinking of hyperbole as much closer to an outright lie than what Buckley claimed. So what is the origin of this term? Looking closer, I imagine a forgotten deity from the age of Pericles.
The OED Online supports the common usage as overstatement for rhetorical effect; so far, so good then. The etymology here is indeed Greek, meaning “excess.” As for early uses, the OED goes back to 1529 and no less a speaker and writer than Catholic martyr Thomas More, best known today for his Utopia and death at the hands of Henry VIII. More noted, in the spelling of his day, “a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” Seven decades later, Shakespeare spelled the word “hiperbole” but used it in the same way as More had done.
Modern spelling has settled down, but not so a drift in meaning to something very close to lying, thus making a falsehood out of what was once merely exaggeration. We enjoy hyperbole frequently in tall tales, in the hyperbolic commentary of sportscasters or, with a wink, in political speeches.
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