Hyperbole /haɪˈpɚbəli/ noun: language that describes something to be better or worse than it really is; exaggeration.
That definition seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? From childhood we frequently use hyperbole, often without intending to, and without even realizing we are doing it. Hyperbole is used every day in advertising, both to get our attention and to make us desire a product.
In today’s highly charged political environment, however, hyperbole can get a person into some serious predicaments. Whether or not a given phrase is hyperbole seems to depend both upon whether the speaker considers the phrase to be rhetorical or factual, and upon whether the listener believes the phrase is intended to be exaggeration, or truth.
For example, here is a quotation from the December 13, 2016, Orange County Register:
“COSTA MESA – An Orange Coast College teacher who told her students that Donald Trump’s election was an “act of terrorism” has received threats and has temporarily left the state…hundreds of people turned out at the college to demonstrate in support of her and against her.”
Does the teacher really believe that the election was an “act of terrorism,” or was she employing hyperbole? Do the supporting demonstrators agree that the election was an “act of terrorism,” or do they believe the phrase was rhetorical exaggeration? Are the people demonstrating against her because she spoke a vicious lie, or because she is extremely unhappy about the outcome of the election? We just don’t know.
If we stop and think about it for a while, we can conclude that, if the election were really an act of terrorism, it would have been the fearfully violent actions of millions of people voting for Donald Trump. Even though the opposition may have feared the outcome, however, the voters’ actions were certainly not violent. Therefore, a reasonable listener would most likely consider the phrase to be hyperbole.
A college teacher is certainly educated enough to understand the definition of terrorism. And she certainly has learned how to use hyperbole to get a reaction from her audience. But, if she does not have the sensitivity to determine that the amount of exaggeration results in an inflammatory reaction, as opposed to a positive one, she invites an unintended consequence.