hyperbole /haiˈpɜbəli/

Just yesterday, I received a tweet with a link to an article about the culture of whales. No, that wasn’t a misspelling of “Wales” but a reference to those huge, blubbery mammals that produce exotic whoops and whistles in order to communicate with one another.  I say “communicate” because I’m not one of those linguists who believe that “talking” is the right way to describe what whales do.

"Do you think my hump looks fat?"

Bees are able to do quirky little dances in order to communicate – without the New Jersey fist-pumping element – but you’d have to be very flexible with your definitions to describe is as a conversation. The bees can transmit data about distance and direction but there’s no “Hey dude, did you hear about Ralph getting a guest spot on ‘Springer’ and stinging some trailer park chick in the ass?”

"So, back to your hive or mine?"

Of course, this doesn’t stop some people from wanting to claim that such communication activities are evidence of an underlying intelligence and consciousness that is close to being human. At the top of the wacko food chain are the self-proclaimed “Pet Psychics” who are not as dumb as the people who believe them, and who are smart enough to get paid by gullible pet owners for spouting total crap (“Fido tells me he is unhappy, and that switching to a premium doggy chow would enhance his self-esteem.”)

In the case of the whales, the story originally comes from a 2001 scholarly article (and for “scholarly” read “we got paid to do this from a grant”) that’s entitled Culture in whales and dolphins by Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead[1]. The more recent revival of the story makes an appearance in the online publication, The Daily Galaxy, where the following gem of hyperbole appears when the author talks about how whale songs have changed:

Why did the song change? It’s not clear, but what is clear is that whales have a sophisticated culture. And who knows, it may be a culture that provides them with the tools to outlive that of homo sapiens. The fact that they took the opposite revolutionary route of human’s by going from land to sea 50 million years ago was a stroke of genius. After all, this the water planet.

“Sophisticated culture?” “Outlive homo sapiens?” “Stroke of genius?” As far as I can remember, it was Melville who wrote Moby Dick, and not Moby Dick who wrote “Melville.” And in the great list of the cultural contributions of whales, I suppose sucking krill is their most significant achievement. Apart from the egregiously erroneous notion that somehow the whales sat down and thought, “Gee guys, let’s not evolve legs and stick around in the water instead,” the paragraph practically defines the word hyperbole for us.

Here’s how the OED defines it:

A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.

Alas for some speakers – and writers – hyperbole IS intended to be understood literally.

The word comes from the Greek, ύπερβολή, meaning excess or exaggeration, and is made up from ύπέρ = over and βάλλειν = to throw. Sometimes an example of hyperbole seems more like it should mean “throw up” rather than “throw over.”

One of the earliest uses in English is by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), a famous English figure who is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church. In his enthrallingly titled A dyaloge wherin he treatyd dyvers maters as of the veneration and worshyp of ymagys from 1529, he writes, “By a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” The spelling variation here probably a French influence.

Thomas More (1478-1535)

In 1653, another More decided to enhance the word by sticking an “-ism” suffix one. Henry More (1614-1687) was an English philosopher and born in Grantham, the same town as Britain’s first Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. He spent most of his life teaching at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and during that time wrote An antidote against atheisme, which included the comment, “Nor is there anything here of Hyperbolism or high-flown Language.”

Henry More (1614-1687)

As a verb, the word is rare.  Philosopher John Locke uses it as such in the comment “Your poor solitary verger who suffers here under the deep winter of frost and snow: I do not hyperbole in the case” (Letter to E. Masham, April 29th, 1698). But other than that, there appear to be no other instances readily available. It is more frequent (but maybe only just) when it appears as the form hyperbolize. It appears in a letter of 1599 in the sentence “Will you hyperbolize aboue S. Gregorie, who is contented to marshall the foure generall Councels?” and in the “-ing” form in 1619 in Martin Fotherby’s gripping Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels; “Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels.”

The Corpus of Contemporary American cites only three examples in recent history; one from Men’s Health magazine in 1996, one from a National Public Radio interview of 2004, and one from an academic article in 2005. So not exactly a form that trips of the tongue at cocktail parties.

Interestingly, as an adjective, you might expect it to be hyperbolic, but in this form, it means “Of, belonging to, or of the form or nature of a hyperbola.” The OED recognizes hyperbolical as meaning “Of the nature of, involving, or using hyperbole; exaggerated, extravagant.” The sense of the word is clearly important in determining the form of the adjective.

Meanwhile, the Welsh can take comfort in the observation that when I typed “the language and culture of whales” into the Google search engine, the top returned reference was to the Wikipedia page for Wales. Seems that the culture of the land and people is still infinitely more important than that of corpulent cetaceans. Or is that just hyperbole?

References

[1] , L. and Whitehead, H. 2001. Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(2): 309-382 Abstract PDF.

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