Hyperbole and Understatement
So, as you can tell from those two examples, a hyperbole is defined as obvious and intentional exaggeration. It’s an extravagant statement or figure of speech that is not intended to be taken literally.
We use hyperbole, or at least hear it, quite often in day-to-day conversation. For example, you might say to a friend: “I haven’t seen you in an eternity!” You saw this friend just last week, but to get the point across that it has felt like a long time, you exaggerate by using a word that implies it’s been “forever.” Since this is an exaggeration and is not meant to be taken literally, it is a hyperbole.
It is crucial to keep in mind that there are certain elements that make a hyperbole’s function differ depending on context. In this case, the word eternity was used to create emphasis, but in a different situation, it could be used ironically.
If you just recently saw your friend and coincidentally encountered him twenty minutes later, then making the same hyperbolic statement would have an ironic effect.
Whether for emphasis or irony, hyperbole is never literal and is always an intentional and obvious exaggeration.
Hyperbole is not just something that we use in conversation; authors have used it as a literary tool for centuries. Take Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for example. The character Egeus is in opposition to the relationship between his daughter and Demetrius, saying:
With cunning hast thou filched my daughter’s heart.
Obviously, Demetrius did not literally steal the blood-pumping organ from Egeus’s daughter. Saying that he has stolen her heart is an exaggerated way to imply that Egeus is displeased with the situation.
Here is a more recent example from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5:
When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals.
Here, Vonnegut describes the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden during World War II. The hyperbolic sentence—Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals—works to emphasize the destruction of the city after its bombing. This arguably has a much more powerful effect than simply saying “Dresden was badly damaged.” The hyperbole here may overstate the extent to which Dresden was damaged, but it drives the point home that the damage was extensive, perhaps difficult to put into language beyond the use of hyperbole for a reader who did not experience the bombing of the city as Vonnegut did in real life.
So now that we’ve looked at hyperbole, let’s flip things around and look at understatements.
Instead of exaggerating, an understatement works by diminishing or minimizing the facts or situation at hand. Without context, these statements appear to be normal. Let’s look at some examples:
I could have done a little better on the test.
Without context, you might assume that this person did reasonably well on the test, perhaps scoring an 80/100. However, if this person only made a 20/100, his remark would be an understatement; he obviously could have done a LOT better on the test. Other examples would be saying “It rained a bit more than usual” after a storm that lasted an entire week, or saying “We’ve had better games” after losing 70-0.
Understatement, then, is often humorous and usually ironic. However, it can also be used sincerely in everyday speech for speakers to minimize or downplay the situation. Take the last example: The football player could be commenting on how terrible the game went in a humorous way or he could be minimizing the importance of the loss in an attempt to distract from the terrible score so he could move on.
Understatement is also used quite often in literature. Here is an example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
What, art thou hurt?
Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.
In this scene, Mercutio has been mortally wounded. Understatement appears when he reduces his wound to a mere scratch. Understatement in this case can serve a few purposes. For one, it tells us something about Mercutio as a character—his willingness to call his severe wound a scratch suggests that he is courageous and stoic. Secondly, for readers or viewers of the play, this initial assessment of the wound may lead to the belief that it is not so severe, thus realizing later on that the wound is mortal may come as a more dramatic and powerful shock.
Let’s move into the 20th century with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
I’ve got a nice place here,” he said, his eyes flashing about restlessly.
Turning me around by one arm, he moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half-acre of deep, pungent roses, and a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore.
Here, the extravagantly wealthy Tom Buchanan describes his place as merely “nice.” The latter description shows that the place is much more than “nice,” thus calling it such is an understatement. The understatement, in this case, could say a lot about Tom. He could be attempting to downplay the magnitude of his estate in order to avoid appearing like a braggart, or he may be so used to his wealthy lifestyle that he can only think of what most people would think of as extremely extravagant as “nice.”
Okay, now that we’ve looked at overstatements and understatements, here’s a review question to test your knowledge:
Which is an example of hyperbole?
- The man was very tall.
- I would have liked to do a little better.
- The universe could be considered quite large.
- The spider was the size of a Buick.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!