The 8 Greatest Hyperboles of All Time

Examples of Hyperbole in Prose and Poetry

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"From architecture to advertising, Las Vegas is hyperbole" (Ed Shane, Disconnected America, 2001). (David Livingston/Getty Images)

Have you ever heard something be referred to as the best, worst, funniest, saddest, or greatest and known that the statement in question is almost definitely false? Do you feel the same doubt when a person claims they could eat a horse? Of course you do. Exaggerations like these, common in informal speech, are simply not true. This popular form of exaggeration and enhancement is referred to as hyperbole.

Hyperboles, such as this article title, are often formed using superlatives and overstatements. There cannot be more than one best and worst and you are probably not actually hungry enough to eat a horse, but over-the-top claims like these can be helpful in making a point more clear. Keep reading for examples of hyperbole in media and tips for how to use this tool.

Are Hyperboles Lies?

"'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," (Hume 1740).

Hume, like many others that use hyperbolic speech, did not fully mean what he was saying in the quote above. He was merely trying to express how strongly he dislikes getting scratched. Does this mean that hyperboles and lies are one and the same? As far as most people are concerned, no! The Roman rhetorician Quintilianus eloquently describes this tricky concept by explaining that rather than a deceitful lie, hyperbole is "an elegant surpassing of the truth":

"Hyperbole lies, but not so as to intend to deceive by lying ... It is in common use, as much among the unlearned as among the learned; because there is in all men a natural propensity to magnify or extenuate what comes before them, and no one is contented with the exact truth.
But such departure from the truth is pardoned, because we do not affirm what is false. In a word, the hyperbole is a beauty, when the thing itself, of which we have to speak, is in its nature extraordinary; for we are then allowed to say a little more than the truth, because the exact truth cannot be said; and language is more efficient when it goes beyond reality than when it stops short of it," (Quintilianus 1829).

Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca also defends this way of speaking, saying that hyperbole "asserts the incredible in order to arrive at the credible," (Seneca 1887). As you can see, most experts regard hyperbole as a valid means of expressing oneself that is entirely separate from lying and supplementary to the truth.

The following collection of eight passages displays some of the most memorable hyperboles that media—including stories, poems, essays, speeches, and comedy routines—have to offer. They will help you understand the contexts in which hyperbolic speech can be used and the purposes it can serve, from capturing a reader or listener's attention to dramatizing in order to convey strong emotions.

Examples of Hyperbole in Media

It's no secret that hyperbolic speech is outlandish, but that doesn't mean it isn't useful. Hyperbole is a forceful figure of speech that, used appropriately, can offer insightful and imaginative commentary. This collection starring the best of the best will show you how.

Fairytales and Folklore

Exaggeration is often more fun than believable. The interesting and farfetched nature of hyperbolic speech and writing makes it great for folklore and fairytales. "Babe the Blue Ox", a folktale retold by S.E. Schlosser, demonstrates this. "Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before," (Schlosser).

Poverty

Hyperbole is versatile and can be applied outside of fiction to comment on real-world issues. Comedy sketch group Monty Python speaks hyperbolically in their segment "The Four Yorkshiremen" about being poor, meant both to amuse and provoke.
Michael Palin: "You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o'clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day week in, week out. When we got home, our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!
Graham Chapman: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
Terry Gilliam: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at 12 o'clock at night and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked 24 hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
Eric Idle: I had to get up in the morning at 10 o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing "Hallelujah."
Michael Palin: But you try and tell the young people today that and they won't believe ya'.
All: Nope, nope," (Monty Python, "The Four Yorkshiremen").

The American South 

Journalist Henry Louis Mencken used hyperbole to share his (rather grim) opinions regarding the South. "It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal reaches of the now mythical ether. Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities, and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany, and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles.

And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the "progress" it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert," (Mencken 1920).

Admiration

Hyperbole isn't always so harsh. In fact, this device can describe an individual or group of people in a variety of positive and negative ways, including to express deep respect and admiration. John F. Kennedy illustrated the latter during a speech made at a White House dinner honoring 49 Nobel Prize winners. "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone," (Kennedy 1962).

Love

Hyperbole is and always has been commonplace in informal prose, but is never more beautiful and lyrical than in poetry. Often, hyperbolic poems and songs like these three are about love.

  1. "Had we but world enough, and time,
    This coyness, lady, were no crime.
    We would sit down and think which way
    To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
    Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
    Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
    Of Humber would complain. I would
    Love you ten years before the Flood;
    And you should, if you please, refuse
    Till the conversion of the Jews.
    My vegetable love should grow
    Vaster than empires, and more slow.
    An hundred years should go to praise
    Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
    Two hundred to adore each breast,
    But thirty thousand to the rest;
    An age at least to every part,
    And the last age should show your heart.
    For, lady, you deserve this state,
    Nor would I love at lower rate," (Marvell 1681).
  2. "As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
    So deep in luve am I;
    And I will love thee still, my dear,
    Till a' the seas gang dry.
    Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
    And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
    O I will love thee still, my dear,
    While the sands o' life shall run," (Burns 1794).
  3. "I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
    Till China and Africa meet,
    And the river jumps over the mountain
    And the salmon sing in the street.
    I'll love you till the ocean
    Is folded and hung up to dry
    And the seven stars go squawking
    Like geese about the sky," (Auden 1940).

Wildness

As you can see, hyperbole can describe nearly anything. In the case of Tom Robbins' "Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg", this figure of speech is used to recount the performance and passion of an enchanting musician.

"Play for us, you big wild gypsy girl, you who look as if you might have spent the morning digging potatoes on the steppes of Russia; you who surely galloped in on a snorting mare, bareback or standing in the saddle; you whose chicory tresses reek of bonfire and jasmine; you who traded a dagger for a bow; grab your violin as if it were a stolen chicken, roll your perpetually startled eyes at it, scold it with that split beet dumpling you call a mouth; fidget, fuss, flounce, flick, fume—and fiddle; fiddle us through the roof, fiddle us over the moon, higher than rock ‘n’ roll can fly...

Saw those strings as if they were the log of the century, fill the hall with the ozone of your passion; play Mendelssohn for us, play Brahms and Bruch; get them drunk, dance with them, wound them, and then nurse their wounds, like the eternal female that you are; play until the cherries burst in the orchard, play until wolves chase their tails in the tearooms; play until we forget how we long to tumble with you in the flower beds under Chekhov’s window; play, you big wild gypsy girl, until beauty and wildness and longing are one," (Robbins 2005).

Arguments Against Hyperbole

As helpful as dramatization can be, it is not always well received. Hyperbole can be controversial as it is almost always in partial conflict with the truth—further, those that use this form of speech, especially in excess, are often criticized as immature, fanatical, and distant.

Theologian Stephen Webb once described hyperbole as "the poor relation of the tropes family, treated like a distant relative whose family ties are questionable at best," (Webb 1993). Thousands of years prior, Aristotle called this figure of speech juvenile, saying in no uncertain terms that "hyperboles are for young men to use". He went on to say, "[Hyperboles] show vehemence of character, and this is why angry people use them more than other people."

Sources

  • Auden, W.H. "As I Walked Out One Evening." Another Time, 1940.
  • Burns, Robert. "A Red, Red Rose." 1794.
  • Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. C. Borbet, 1740.
  • Kennedy, John F. “Nobel Prize Winner Banquet.” Nobel Prize Winner Banquet. 29 Apr. 1962, Washington, D.C.
  • Marvell, Andrew. "To His Coy Mistress." 1681.
  • Mencken, Henry Louis. “The Sahara of the Bozart.” Prejudices: Second Series, Alfred A. Knopf, 1920.
  • Quintilianus, Marcus Fabius. Institutes of Oratory. 1829.
  • Robbins, Tom. “Nadja Solerno-Sonnerberg.” Esquire, 1 Nov. 1989.
  • Schlosser, S.E. "Babe the Blue Ox." Minnesota Tall Tales.
  • Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. On Benefits Addressed to Aebutius Liberalis. George Bell & Sons York Street, 1887.
  • "The Four Yorkshiremen". Monty Python, 1974.
  • Webb, Stephen H. Blessed Excess: Religion and the Hyperbolic Imagination. State University of New York Press, 1993.