AUTHOR: Claudia Claridge TITLE: Hyperbole in English SUBTITLE: A Corpus-based Study of Exaggeration PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2010
Matthew H. Ciscel, Department of English, Central Connecticut State University
As this book asserts in its introduction, hyperbole (or exaggeration) is a common feature of both everyday discourse and many formal genres of language use. Yet, this feature has received relatively little attention compared, for instance, to metaphor. This book takes a first step toward a comprehensive exploration of this phenomenon by providing a broad and informed exploration of hyperbole in English as evidenced in an impressively large set of corpora. Six substantive chapters (which will be discussed below) are framed by brief introductory and concluding chapters. Detailed lists of corpora used in each chapter's analysis appear in five appendices, followed by references and a short index of terms and topics.
Following the three-page introduction, the author turns to definitions and characteristics of hyperbole in Chapter 2. Semantic and pragmatic components are explored in considerable depth and with numerous illustrative examples as the chapter narrows toward a definition of hyperbole that is presented more clearly in a diagram (on page 38) than in prose. The definition emphasizes the contrast between literal and hyperbolic semantics and the role of context and gradability (which concerns the strength or weakness with which the hyperbolic deviates from the literal) in interpretation. The discussion in Chapter 3 continues to specify the topic of the book by providing a taxonomy of hyperbole in its realizations. First, a distinction is drawn between basic hyperbole, in which the semantic domain is preserved (e.g. ''freezing'' in place of merely ''chilly''), and composite hyperbole, which switches domains by combining with metaphor or other figures of speech (e.g. ''monster'' for ''large''). The remainder of this chapter explores various forms of hyperbole, including single-word (the most common; seen in the previous two examples), phrasal (e.g. ''completely empty'' for a cinema with only a few patrons), clausal (e.g. ''nobody ever learns anything''), numerical (e.g. ''a hundred and ten percent''), superlative (e.g. ''the grossest thing ever''), comparative (e.g. ''shake like a leaf''), and repetitive forms (e.g. ''loads and loads and loads of it''). Chapters 2 and 3 are complemented by examples of hyperbole from the corpora that precisely illustrate the distinctions at hand.
Having established the types of exaggeration in English, the author moves on in Chapters 4 and 5 to its use as seen from the speaker's and recipient's perspectives, respectively. Data from the corpora are drawn on again in Chapter 4 to illustrate first the role of speaker subjectivity in exaggeration and then the speaker's modulation of it through (de)emphasis, among other options. The chapter concludes with a discussion of explicitly reflexive comment in the use of hyperbole to draw attention to the intended message. An example of this is the insertion of the clause, ''It is no exaggeration to claim that'' just before a hyperbolic statement. Chapter 5 turns to the reception of hyperbolic utterances, particularly the role of Gricean principles, including relevance, in interpretability and the role of politeness and face theory. One example explores how hyperbole is used to dismiss the need for apology when a person responds to an apology with a sarcastic, ''I shall never speak to you again.'' In another section, the discussion overlaps a bit with the treatment in Chapter 7 of typical contexts of hyperbole when it delves into the use of hyperbole in competitive insults and boasts (e.g. ''your mother's so ugly that'' types of comments).
In Chapter 6, the discussion focuses on processes of historical change in the use of exaggeration in English. Several corpora that collect texts from past varieties of English are drawn upon to explore the emergence and then conventionalization of hyperbolic uses of particular phrases. This detour into diachronic linguistics centers around six case studies of terms like ''starve,'' tracing the shift in its meaning through hyperbole from ''death'' to mere ''hunger.'' This historical perspective complements the primarily synchronic treatment of hyperbole in the book, contributing substantive insights into the nature of both exaggeration and language in general.
Finally, Chapter 7 provides an exploration of typical contexts of exaggeration, including persuasion (e.g. highlighting examples from politics in the British parliament), humor (with examples from Monty Python and the British show ''Coupling''), and literature (including brief examples from Shakespeare, Dickens, and Rushdie). Once again, the examples illustrate the structure and function of hyperbole in each treated area. This chapter is followed by a five-page conclusion that summarizes the main findings of the study and points toward unanswered questions and paths for future research that others may wish to pursue.
Despite considerable efforts on the part of the reviewer to develop a tongue-in-cheek frame for this review, the book does not lend itself readily to hyperbolic evaluation. It is a solidly researched and written study with several impressive elements and a few shortcomings. In fact, the book's greatest strength is its earnest, thoughtful, and detailed exploration of its topic. This merit is equaled in strength by the extensive use of poignant examples from the vast sets of treated corpora. The apparent audience is limited to linguistic scholars, cast broadly, whether read as a monograph cover-to-cover or used as a reference. The academic prose and use of linguistic terminology would make the work considerably less accessible to a novice or lay reader.
The ambitious range of structures, functions, and contexts of hyperbolic usage covered in the study works well as a general introduction to the many facets of this phenomenon. Even so, each chapter could easily be expanded into an entire volume of its own, as the author suggests in the conclusion. In this sense, the book is comprehensive without being exhaustive. The many topics across the chapters are interconnected well enough and given relatively equal attention and weight in the discussion. As mentioned above, even the chapter on the diachrony of hyperbole in English fits well into the flow of the study. The one topic/chapter that seemed the most in need of greater elaboration and exploration was Chapter 7 on the various contexts or rhetorical genres of hyperbole. The section on humor, for example, was detailed and insightful, but seemed to only scratch the surface when focusing on just a handful of examples.
While the prose was a little stiff at times, the numerous examples from the corpora helped to keep the study grounded and fairly readable. For many, the allure of hyperbole is its inherent playfulness and creative qualities. To complement the chapter on diachronic processes of conventionalization, the study could have emphasized the creative margins of convention in which hyperbole resides more clearly. The location of hyperbole between the conventional and counter-conventional could have been more central to the definition in Chapter 1 and to the discussion of forms and uses throughout the study.
Another problem with the organization of the study was the absence of a clear discussion of the author's methodology in choosing, working through, and analyzing the corpus data used throughout the core chapters. Lists of corpora in the appendices and extensive reference to examples from them strengthen the validity of the claims made in each chapter, but the logic behind the study and the corpora that support them could have been more explicit.
A final criticism of the book is that the title is a little misleading. The examples in the book focus largely on British English, with a few tokens from American English and standard German included at times. Unfortunately, the differences in these cultural contexts and varieties of English are not sufficiently problematized in the discussion, in that no attempt is made to explore how the globalization of English or its multiple standards might be reflected in hyperbolic expressions across the English-speaking world. Most frustratingly, examples from German seem to outnumber examples from non-British varieties of English in some parts of the book. This pattern can be understood if one knows that the author lives and works in Germany, but it still represents an inexplicable departure from the topic implied by the title of the book.
Overall, the book succeeds as an ambitious and comprehensive study of hyperbole, despite the criticisms outlined above. It will be of particular value to scholars working in discourse analysis, literary studies, historical linguistics, pragmatics, and corpus linguistics.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Matthew H. Ciscel is an Associate Professor of linguistics in the
Department of English at Central Connecticut State University. His research
primarily focuses on multilingualism and language education in the former
Soviet Union, but he also dabbles regularly in discourse analysis and