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Review of  Hyperbole in English

Reviewer: Matthew H. Ciscel
Book Title: Hyperbole in English
Book Author: Claudia Claridge
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Historical Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.3089

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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

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.

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 historical sociolinguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521766354
ISBN-13: 9780521766357
Prices: U.K. £ 60.00
U.S. $ 99.00