Definition of Exaggeration

Exaggeration is a way of over-emphasizing something, either making it better or worse than it really is. Exaggeration can be used to communicate the importance of something, to create a lasting impression, or to evoke stronger feelings than otherwise.

The word exaggeration comes from the Latin word exaggerationem, which means “elevation” or “exaltation.” The original literal root of the word meant to “heap up.” Thus, the origin of the definition of exaggeration had a very literal meaning about adding on to something.

Types of Exaggeration

The following is not an all-inclusive list of exaggeration types, though it highlights some of the most common forms.

  • Hyperbole—Hyperbole is a figure of speech that relies on obvious and deliberate exaggeration. Hyperbole is not synonymous with exaggeration because, as we can see below, there are many different ways that exaggeration can be expressed.
  • Farce—A farce is a form of comedy that entertains via situations that are exaggerated and highly improbable. Farce does not rely on plot, but instead on absurd humor and physical comedy.
  • Slapstick comedy—This form of comedy has exaggerated actions and consequences. For example, Wile E. Coyote doesn’t merely fail to catch the Roadrunner; he is run over by a train or shot from a cannon, etc.
  • Caricature—Street artists the world over rely on exaggerating certain features of the target’s face or body for comedic purposes. Caricature relies on much of the portrait being recognizable as the real person with only one or two notable features exaggerated.

Common Examples of Exaggeration

We often use exaggeration in everyday occurrences. There are certain popular phrases that are examples of exaggeration, such as the following:

  • If he saw me like this I would just die.
  • You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.
  • These office politics are going to lead to World War III.

There are also several different situations that are exaggeration examples. For instance:

  • Tom really doesn’t want to go to work on a certain day. He wakes up with a slight sniffle and calls in to work to say he can’t come because he’s deathly ill.
  • Sally talking about how much the boss loved her presentation to make Joey feel jealous.

There’s a famous sketch from Monty Python called “The Dirty Fork,” in which a couple dining at a restaurant complain about a fork that is delivered to them dirty. In a response that keeps getting more and more exaggerated, the restaurant staff end up killing each other over the mistake.

Frequent exaggeration can be a sign that someone suffers from narcissism, and can be obvious to spot when this occurs in celebrities such as politicians and musicians. Donald Trump is famous for his examples of exaggeration, both about himself and how drastic things are for America right now. For example, he’s said that he’s worth $10 billion, an exaggeration of up to about 7 billion. He’s also stated that the United States is $500 billion in debt to China, which again is an exaggeration, this time of about $375 billion.

The similarly narcissistic musician Kanye is a fan of exaggeration about himself. He has been known to refer to himself as God. He is also quoted as having said, “When I think of competition it’s like I try to create against the past. I think about Michelangelo and Picasso, you know, the pyramids.”

Significance of Exaggeration in Literature

In Ancient Greek comedy there were three stock characters, one of whom was called the alazon. The alazon was a braggart who thought of himself as greater than he actually was, such as an angry and self-righteous father or a vainglorious soldier. This character was usually brought down by the eiron, another of the three stock characters, who downplayed his own abilities. (The term eiron later gave rise to the word irony).

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first one to explore the concept of the alazon deeply in his treatise Ethics. The alazon’s role is to be both obnoxious in his bragging, and then to be sent up onstage by other characters and in the way the play deals with him at the end. There is a strong tradition of this kind of character that has existed for thousands of years; indeed, modern comedies often include arrogant braggarts only to make fun of them. There is a similar tradition in literature of showing the fates of those who flatter those in authority excessively. Comedies often given these kinds of characters their “just rewards” by bringing them down by the end.

Examples of Exaggeration in Literature

Example #1

CAPULET: How, how, how, how? Chopped logic! What is this?
“Proud,” and “I thank you,” and “I thank you not,”
And yet “not proud”? Mistress minion you,
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green sickness, carrion! Out, you baggage!
You tallow face!

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Juliet’s father Capulet in William Shakespeare’s tragedy follows on a long tradition of the alazon from Greek comedy. Capulet plays the traditional role of putting up obstacles to young love, and in this excerpt from the play he also examples several exaggeration examples to show just how disgusted he is with Juliet’s behavior. He calls her “you green sickness, carrion,” “you baggage,” and “you tallow face.” These exaggerations examples are meant to evoke strong emotion in her and make her ashamed of her desire not to marry Paris.

Example #2

“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

Ebenezer Scrooge is a famously boastful character who is proud of his own riches, though he’s too miserly to enjoy them. He is such an arrogant and angry character that he provides an example of exaggeration when he gives his opinion about what should happen to people who wish each other “Merry Christmas.”

Example #3

“…four…three…two…one…time!” called out Major Danby, and raised his eyes triumphantly to discover that no one had been listening to him and that he would have to begin all over again. “Ooooh,” he moaned in frustration.

“What was that?” roared General Dreedle incredulously, and whirled around in a murderous rage upon Major Danby, who staggered back in terrified confusion and began to quail and perspire. “Who is this man?”

“M-major Danby, sir,” Colonel Cathcart stammered. “My group operations officer.”

“Take him out and shoot him,” ordered General Dreedle.

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

The above excerpt from Joseph Heller’s anti-war novel Catch-22 is an example of exaggeration in the way that General Dreedle responds to the situation. Major Danby is not paying attention to General Dreedle, but Dreedle thinks Danby has disrespected him. Instead of realizing there’s been a misunderstanding, Dreedle responds in a tragically exaggerated way, ordering the execution of Major Danby. Heller is showing the outlandish and exaggerated abuse of power that was a part of the war experience.

Example #4

And remember, comrades, your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray. Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interests of no creature except himself. And among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

The pig named Old Major first makes the case for revolution with examples of exaggeration, such as the hyperbolic “all men are enemies.” Orwell displayed these exaggeration examples to show the way the demagoguery often relies on hyperbole and alarmism to achieve its means.

Test Your Knowledge of Exaggeration

1. Which of the following statements is the best exaggeration definition?
A. A rhetorical device which represents something in an excessive way.
B. Using a negative statement to affirm a positive sentiment, such as “she’s not ugly.”
C. A literal affirmation which shows the truth of something.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. What role did the alazon have in Ancient Greek theater?
A. A buffoon who knows how ridiculous he is.
B. To be a braggart who would ultimately be taken down.
C. To tell the braggart what he wanted to hear and lead to his downfall.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following is not a form of exaggeration?
A. Slaptick
B. Caricature
C. Innuendo

Answer to Question #3 Show

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