What Is a Hyperbole?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

Woman sitting at table with dramatically over-sized cup of coffee

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Hyperbole is a figure of speech (a form of irony) in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect; an extravagant statement. Adjective: hyperbolic. Contrast with understatement.

In the first century, Roman rhetorician Quintilian observed that hyperbole is "commonly used even by ignorant people and peasants, which is understandable, as all people are by nature inclined to magnify or to minimize things and nobody is content to stick to what is really the case" (translated by Claudia Claridge in Hyperbole in English, 2011).


From the Latin, hyper- "beyond" + bole "a throwing"

Examples and Observations

  • "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." (Mark Twain, "Old Times on the Mississippi")
  • "A whole morning could be spent just getting the laces on your sneakers right since all sneakers in the 1950s had more than seven dozen lace holes and the laces were fourteen feet long. Each morning, you would jump out of bed to find that the laces had somehow become four feet longer on one side of the shoe than the other." (Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Broadway Books, 2006)
  • "He snorted and hit me in the solar plexus.
    "I bent over and took hold of the room with both hands and spun it. When I had it nicely spinning I gave it a full swing and hit myself on the back of the head with the floor." (Raymond Chandler, "Pearls Are a Nuisance," 1939)
  • "[Jeeves] returned with the tissue-restorer. I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink Jeeves's patent morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like racquet balls, I felt better." (P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938)
  • "Ladies and gentlemen, I've been to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together." (Kent Brockman, The Simpsons)
  • "My wife believes that men tend to have insanely high physical standards regarding the kind of woman they're willing to settle for. She notes that a middle-aged man can have tarantula-grade nose hair, b.o. that can cause migrating geese to change course, and enough spare tissue to form a whole new middle-aged man, but this man can still believe he is physically qualified to date Scarlett Johansson." (Dave Barry, I'll Mature When I'm Dead. Berkley, 2010)
  • "The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles: don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run! I tried the cabs. No use. The cabbies are all Saturnians who aren’t even sure whether this is a right planet or a left planet. The first thing you have to do, every trip, is teach them how to drive." (Martin Amis, Money, 1984)
  • "Daphne, you can't go. You have to stay. I've only just recently realized how important you are to us. You see, if you go, Dad and I will kill each other. I'm not just tossing out hyperbole here. I'm speaking in the most literal sense: Dad and I, both dead. Only he'll be lying there with a bacteria-ridden sponge protruding from his mouth like a bloated tongue!" (Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Frasier Crane in "Come Lie With Me." Frasier, 1996)
  • "My toaster has never once worked properly in four years. I follow the instructions and push two slices of bread down in the slots, and seconds later they rifle upwards. Once they broke the nose of a woman I loved dearly." (Woody Allen, "My Speech to the Graduates." The New York Times, Aug. 10, 1979)
  • "Kingsley fell over. And this was no brisk trip or tumble. It was an act of colossal administration. First came a kind of slow-leak effect, giving me the immediate worry that Kingsley, when fully deflated, would spread out into the street on both sides of the island, where there were cars, trucks, sneezing buses. Next, as I grabbed and tugged, he felt like a great ship settling on its side: would it right itself, or go under? Then came an impression of overall dissolution and the loss of basic physical coherence. I groped around him, looking for places to shore him up, but every bit of him was falling, dropping, seeking the lowest level, like a mudslide." (Martin Amis, describing his father)
  • Michael: You’re wasting your time, man. If you pick the lock on a Halliburton, I’ll put you on my back and fly us to L.A.
    Sawyer: You better find yourself a runway, daddy, ’cause there ain’t a lock I can’t pick.
    (“Whatever the Case May Be.” Lost, 2005)
  • "I'm experienced now, professional. Jaws been broke, been knocked down a couple of times, I'm bad! Been chopping trees. I done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator. That's right. I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That's bad! Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I'm so mean I make medicine sick!" (Muhammad Ali in the documentary film When We Were Kings, 1996)
  • "O for the gift of Rostand's Cyrano to invoke the vastness of that nose alone as it cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning." (John Simon, review of Barbra Streisand, 1976)
  • "If we're going to start crucifying people for hyperbole in this society, there's going to be a long line. If I were writing a diet book, I wouldn't say, 'It's going to take a lot of work and it'll be a pain in the butt.' I'd say, 'Thin thighs in 30 days!'" (Matthew Lesko. The Week, August 3, 2007)

Playing the Dozens

"Hyperbole is the polished mirror into which the black imagination gazes with every other rhyme, laughing as it sees itself refracted and distorted in a phantasmagorial kaleidoscope.

The language of hyperbole amplifies reality by carrying us beyond the boundaries of rational thought ... Hyperbole is perhaps best exemplified in the dozens,​

Your mama's hair is so short she could stand on her head and her hair wouldn't touch the ground. . . .
Your father is so low he has to look up to tie his shoes.
You're so low down you need an umbrella to protect yourself from ant piss.

These images defy rational understanding and a square, sane conception of space; but they convey, in no uncertain terms, the absolute absence of height. Hyperbole makes extraordinary demands on the imagination." (Onwuchekwa Jemie, Yo Mama! New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes, and Children's Rhymes From Urban Black America. Temple Univ. Press, 2003)

Effective Hyperbole

"The trick to effective hyperbole is to give an original twist to obviously a fanciful overstatement. 'I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles' would no longer impress Mammy, but Raymond Chandler's 'She was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole through a stained-glass window' still has that crisp crunch of freshness." (William Safire, How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar. W.W. Norton, 1990)

"Hyperbole ..., a recognized figure of rhetoric, meaning an extravagant statement or assertion, which, when used for conscious effect, is not to be taken too seriously or too literally. Yet the hyperbole is often used unconsciously by the men of vivid yet unbalanced imagination whom the world sometimes calls liars and sometimes fools." (William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities. Lippincott, 1892)

The Lighter Side of Hyperboles

Principal Skinner: ​​The things you don't know would fill a whole library and leave room for a few pamphlets.​
Superintendent Chalmers: There's no need for hyperbole, Seymour. ("Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts." The Simpsons, October 2, 2011)



Also Known As:

overstatement, exuperatio