Here’s the problem with hyperbole. When using the very concept of excess to excess, comparisons lose their steam.
There is no “great” when everything is great; there is no “tremendous” when everything is tremendous; even “beautiful” becomes status quo, and “most” beautiful, next to meaningless. Moreover, the subjective nature of these superlatives adds to their ineffectiveness.
And no, I’m not solely speaking of Trumpist tones, though certainly “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen” struck me as irksome to the… dare I say it… max.
When overstatement, embellishment, and exaggeration abound, I can’t help but feel that I’m being sold a bill of goods. And the fact is, I feel that frequently these days. We seem to be living in hyperbolic times — hyperbole in extremis — or is that, too, too too over the top?
Merriam-Webster explains hyperbole in an ironically underwhelming fashion:
language that describes something as better or worse than it really is
That definition is a serious disappointment! Not a disaster, not a catastrophe, but lacking in… well… evocative richesse.
Turning to a more painterly definition, I prefer this take on the term from Literary Devices:
… the use of obvious and deliberate exaggeration. Hyperbolic statements are often extravagant and not meant to be taken literally. These statements are used to create a strong impression and add emphasis.
Oh, so much better, don’t you think? Of course most of us don’t take overblown statements “literally.” But what about those who do?
Good, Better, Best… Bestest???
I’ve often found comparisons to be counterproductive. Likewise, rankings. Though both are helpful in specific circumstances, haven’t we run ranking-and-rating rampant in recent years?
Whether we’re selecting the hottest guys or most gorgeous women, the “best people” for government appointments much less the best cake… surely we understand that these are expressions of a momentary (and often fleeting) impression. In their overuse (overindulgence?), we only succeed in undercutting the very power of our loftiest praise.
If hyperbole is to achieve its objective, it’s about emphasis, remember? And if everything is emphasized, then nothing is emphasized, and magnificent and marvelous and miraculous and monumental and “most” (most of all?) ultimately lose their luster.
Now, I don’t mean to downplay the pleasure of a sonorous series of synonyms rolling off the tongue; layering language is not unlike layering flavors in our cuisine. All the more reason to trade in “greatest” for “unrivaled” or “unsurpassed” or “extraordinary.” (“Unprecedented” already appears too often for my taste, however accurate the term.)
Wouldn’t it be better to tame our tendency to raise every object or observation to spectacular heights (or plunged to elegiac depths), lest we lose the pleasure of a word’s distinctive edge?
Compare and Contrast?
I realize that overusing “most” and “best” and “greatest” and similar qualifiers suggesting that size matters — oversize matters, really — becomes a verbal quirk. It’s certainly not the “worst” thing in the world, nor necessarily the laziest language trap to fall into. And don’t we all develop phrasing foibles we rarely notice unless someone points them out?
Only the listener (or reader) may take note, that notice ranging from bemused to irritated and anything in between. I suffer my own handful of verbal tics (as an acquaintance once informed me); I was entirely unaware of the extent to which certain expressions peppered my prose, and these days I try my damnedest — (too much?) — to filter them out.
In the land of comparatives or superlatives, however, I work to minimize emphasis (as oxymoronic as that may sound), and I hope I utilize comparisons only where they are effective and knowing full well they are not absolute. My “best” is not your best; my “most beautiful” is not your “most beautiful,” and likewise my “worst day ever.”
Incidentally, while I don’t find the “best ever” to be as tedious as “worst ever” — I discount the former and find the latter leaning toward crying wolf — would it kill us to remember that we are judged by language? More importantly, that words are tools, that specificity paints a picture, that clarity offers more bang for the buck?
Worst of the Worst of the Worst? Let’s See…
Curious to see if there were bigger-than-big, grander-than-grand, GARGANTUAN examples of hyperbole available, I googled “the most egregious example of hyperbole” and… lo and behold… got nearly a direct hit! However, I found myself sorely disappointed by the resulting hyperbolic example. Crestfallen, even.
And a little bit pissed.
This is yet another aftereffect of being set up by uber-ultra-super-stupendous expectations; the reality is generally less than stellar.
A more significant find in my cursory cruising was this book entitled “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies” written by Marilyn McEntyre. While I am only able to access sample pages via Amazon, I offer you this:
Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Like any other resource, it needs the protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship…
Artificial stimulants, indeed. Hyperbole (at its best, or is it at its worst?) could well be termed as such, certainly when consistently used to prop up anything and everything with a vague and vapid veil of inexactitude. As it is, the hyperbole we are currently subjected to rings true as “faux” and falls flat as stimulating.
Whatever happened to the art of “telling it like it is?”