Sports commentators for example, commonly suggest that one side will kill the other. Anyone with any sport knowledge recognises this does not mean literal murder, rather it is a means to convey that one team has the where-with-all to thrash their opponents.
"And even that is hyperbole," smiles Mark Tronson, chairman of Well-Being Australia. "Of course the reader is not meant to believe that I think there will be an actual thrashing of people on the sportsfield!"
According to Wikipedia, Hyperbole (pronounced 'hie-per-bow-lee') comes from an ancient Greek word meaning 'exaggeration' . It is commonly used rhetorically, meaning that no answer or rebuff is expected, and it is sometimes effective in evoking strong feelings or in creating a strong impression. As indicated in the sports commentary example above, it is not meant to be taken literally.
Referring to various dictionaries, Mark Tronson found the same definitions, plus some everyday examples such as 'I haven't slept for a year', or 'I waited for an eternity'.
According to these definitions, Christian preachers are not immune from hyperbole. Take those that promise healing when there is no evidence or process; take those who predict the end of the world (and have been doing so for centuries); take those who loudly proclaim promises that benefits the congregation, but squander the gifted money on trivia, and the congregation continues to struggle along.
The world of science is engaged in hyperbole also, with the constant reporting of 'breakthroughs' and 'cutting edge research' and promises that diseases will be cured with this latest improvement in technique or promise of positive results in the very early phase of an experimental regime. There is no mention that the practical outcomes (if they result at all) will be years and years away – nor that only a tiny fraction of 'promising' medicines that work in test-tubes are actually suitable for humans when they progress through all the trials.
And where would business be without advertising? The claims made for the virtually magical powers of simple chemicals in everything from hair conditioner to toothpaste to toilet cleaner to fruit juice to the latest model of car cannot reasonably be believed by a discerning public, surely!!! No, they are not meant to be taken seriously – advertising is a very good example of where hyperbole is used to sway people's emotions.
Even the meek and mild social workers or managers of charity funds use these ruses. They promise to save the world, or at least one child in a developing country, if only you donate pennies. However, reports lately have shown that much of the donated funds go into administration and hiring of 'consultants'.
Finally, we take our ultimate cue about hyperbole from politicians. Probably the less said about what politicians promise before an election the better. If we analyse their hyperbolic statements too closely, we may lose all faith in the democratic process altogether.
These examples indicate that, in our society, hyperbole seems to be able to be utilised at any time to meet any contingency. Should anyone be called to task, well, they say (as the sports commentators say), they were only using a common example to illustrate a point.
"Where does the hyperbole start and finish?" asks M V Tronson. "Are there any principles involved, or are they any literary guidelines?"
He puts forward three guidelines to help determine when someone, who is an respected member of society, is speaking the truth or engaging in hyperbole:
First, there are many commonly used phrases that are obviously meant to be 'figures of speech', such as those given by the dictionary or those used often by sports commentators. These have an element of humour, or expressions of frustration, and for a native Australian speaker, the meaning is obvious.
Second, there are those occasions when the speaker is intending for the comment to be taken as hyperbole but with a grain of truth to emphasise the point, and hopefully spurring on the listener to do something. The plea for charity donations may be regarded in this light. The context of the subject often makes it clear when the speaker is intending to emphasise a point.
Third, and the case where the listener needs to be aware of danger, is where hyperbole is used as weapon. If the speaker, with a political agenda, is not just seeking to redress a wrong, but is using his exaggerations with power and vigour so as to engender a response to create a situation of conflict, then it often leads to national or international disasters. Adolf Hitler was the master of this type of hyperbole with speeches against the so called International Jewry conspiracy, but he was not the first, nor will he be the last.
It is a common technique used by despotic leaders all through history, and all over the Globe. Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mugabe are some examples; but European history has many examples from past eras, too, such as the notorious King John, who was so despised that no English King has ever been named John since then.
Mark Tronson's final advice is to look to what Jesus taught, and follow his example when he spoke against hyperbole and spelt out the need for his followers' "Yes to be Yes, and their 'No to be No!'