Hyperbole, and Other Fancy Rhetorical Words

'Pleonasm', 'antonomasia', and 8 more essential rhetorical terms
"I'm telling you, if I don't get this job, it will literally be the end of the world."

Definition: extravagant exaggeration

“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Hyperbole is probably the one literary and rhetorical device on this list that most people have heard of. It’s not just moderate exaggeration, but extreme exaggeration: being hungry enough to eat a horse, or so angry you will literally explode, or having to walk 40 miles uphill both ways to school every day. Hyperbole came into English in the 15th century from the Greek words hyper, meaning “over,” and ballein, meaning “to throw or cast.” When you use hyperbole, you are overshooting the target (not hyperbole).

Hyperbole can often look like simile or metaphor. Simile is when two things are compared using the words like or as, as in “cheeks as red as roses” or “hair like fire”; metaphor is when a word or phrase that literally means something else is used figuratively in order to describe another thing, as in “drowning in debt.” Many people claim that hyperbole, simile, and metaphor can’t possibly overlap, but that’s not true. The difference is that hyperbole is always gross overstatement, whereas simile and metaphor aren’t always. “I hate broccoli with the white-hot hate of a thousand suns” is both hyperbole and metaphor; “You’re as big as a whale” is both hyperbole and simile (and rude).

MORE TO EXPLORE: 'Simile' vs 'Metaphor'

"Not bad, dude! You saved that kid's life!" "Yeah, that riptide wasn't fun; good thing I'm not a terrible swimmer."

Definition: understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary

“Hey, not bad!”

You probably use litotes all the time. Any time you combine a negative (usually “not”) with another negative (“bad,” “unhappy,” “displeased”) to express something positive (“good,” “happy,” “pleased”), you’re employing litotes. You see it most often in phrases like “not bad” to mean “good” and “not uncommon” to mean “common,” though sometimes litotes is less obvious: “Springfield is no ordinary city” and “he’s not the smartest guy around” also use litotes.

Litotes itself is, like many rhetorical terms, Greek. It came into English in the 16th century from the Greek adjective litos, which means “simple.”

"Where do I even begin?"

Definition: an expression of real or pretended doubt or uncertainty especially for rhetorical effect

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1599–1601

What can be said about aporia? (That question itself is an example of aporia!) Aporia is a literary device used to help guide a reader through a text, speech, or argument. When the doubt expressed is real, it shows the humility and humanity of the speaker, which can create a sense of compassion for the speaker (and their argument) in the audience. When the doubt expressed is pretended, it can be used to help plot a path through a speech or argument for the audience. When the best man at a wedding introduces his celebratory toast of the bride and groom with, “Where do I even begin?”, he’s pretending that he’s uncertain about how to enumerate the qualities of the happy couple in order to hint to the assembled well-wishers that the bride and groom have so many good qualities that it’s difficult to choose. He knows where he’s going to begin, but he uses aporia to help guide his audience towards an intended conclusion: that the bride and groom have more good qualities than he can list in a toast.

Aporia also refers to a logical impasse or contradiction, particularly in philosophy and textual criticism. This makes some sense: aporia comes to us from the Greek prefix a-, meaning "not," and poros, which means “passable.” Poros is more familiar to us in the name for those tiny openings on your face, pores.

"He proposed seven times: once in a hackney-coach, once in a boat, once in a pew, once on a donkey at Tunbridge Wells, and the rest on his knees."

Definition: the use of a word in the same grammatical relation to two adjacent words in the context with one literal and the other metaphorical in sense

At length Mr. Stiggins ... took his hat, and his leave.
— Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1836

The Dickens quote above is a classic example of syllepsis, a literary device that playfully links two phrases with different meanings and connotations by using one common verb. In this excerpt from The Pickwick Papers, Dickens joins together “take his hat” and “take his leave” to humorous effect.

Most syllepsis is employed for comedic effect, so it’s no surprise that Dickens seemed to be rather fond of it. There’s more syllepsis in The Pickwick Papers (“Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair.”), Dombey and Son (“Mr. Dombey stiff with starch and arrogance...”), Bleak House (where one colonialist character speaks of “a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry—and the natives”), Our Mutual Friend (“Mr and Mrs John Harmon...taking possession of their rightful name and their London house,”—just one of many examples), and this beautiful sylleptic garden-path of a sentence in Little Dorrit:

”Romance, however,” Flora went on, busily arranging Mr F.'s Aunt's toast, “as I openly said to Mr F. when he proposed to me and you will be surprised to hear that he proposed seven times, once in a hackney-coach, once in a boat, once in a pew, once on a donkey at Tunbridge Wells, and the rest on his knees, Romance was fled with the early days of Arthur Clennam...”

Another favorite haunt of syllepsis is in music, where lyrics like “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind” by the Rolling Stones, and Conway Twitty’s “She’s over thirty and under-loved” take advantage of the way the verb acts like a hinge, swinging meaning both ways.

"Mmm, tuna fish!"

Definition: the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense : redundancy

“I saw it with my own two eyes!”

Pleonasm is a mellifluous name for something every English composition teacher despises: redundancy. But redundancy—and pleonasm in particular—has its uses.

A well-deployed pleonasm, like “I saw it with my own two eyes,” or the toddler’s cry of independence, “I do it by myself!” can add emphasis to a statement: you absolutely saw it; the toddler can absolutely do it. They aren’t always spoken, however: pleonasms show up in formal literary writing as well (“What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”). Shorter pleonasms like “burning hot” or “a black darkness” can give qualification as to the type of heat or darkness being referred to, and so while they may irk some people, they can be useful. These shorter pleonasms sometimes become fixed as idioms: “free gift” and “tuna fish” are two pleonasms that pedants complain about regularly, though they are common in English.

Pleonasm comes from the Greek word pleōn, which means “more.”

"Judge me by my size, do you?"

Definition: a transposition or inversion of idiomatic word order

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?”

That iconic sentence was uttered by one of the universe’s most well-known users of hyperbaton: Yoda, in the 1980 movie The Empire Strikes Back. Hyperbaton is used primarily in poetry or in poetical constructions (like Yoda’s odd cadence) to both disrupt the normal flow of a sentence, which could lull a listener into complacence, and to emphasize something within that sentence that wouldn’t otherwise be emphasized. Take “Judge me by my size, do you?” as an example. Without hyperbaton, that would read “Do you judge me by my size?” or “Are you judging me by my size?” The focal point in both of those sentences is you: the person to whom the question is addressed. By using hyperbaton, Yoda emphasizes instead me, which flows better with what he’s trying to say in that scene—that it’s not the size of the Jedi that matters.

More often we see moderate hyperbaton in those formal-sounding phrases where the adjective shows up after the noun it modifies instead of before it. Hyperbaton is responsible for phrases like time immemorial and a friend most dear.

"Working hard, or hardly working?"

Definition: an inverted relationship between the syntactic elements of parallel phrases”

“Working hard, or hardly working?”

“Love without end, and without measure Grace”
—John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667

Chiasmus is a type of parallelism in which a grammatical structure or idea is duplicated for effect, as in “a penny saved is a penny earned” or “easy come, easy go." But chiasmus is different from other types of parallelism: it’s not structures or ideas duplicated, but structures or ideas mirrored.

The standard form for chiasmus is roughly ABBA. You see it in the jokey “working hard [AB] or hardly working [BA]” and in Milton’s “love [A] without end [B], and without measure [B] Grace [A].” It is an important device in ancient texts, including the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. In some cases, chiasms, or instances of chiasmus, are layered within each other to create patterns like ABCDXDCBA.

This begins to make more sense if you know that chiasmus comes into English ultimately from the Greek verb chiazein, which means “to mark with a chi.” Chi is a letter of the Greek alphabet, and is shaped like an X.

"I'll meet you by the statue of the Bard."

Definition: the use of a proper name to designate a member of a class or the use of an epithet or title in place of a proper name

The way she cooks, she’s a regular Julia Child!

We’ll be reading four plays by the Bard this semester: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Antonomasia broadly refers to substituting one name for the common, obvious, or normal name. We use antonomasia usually to identify a person as a member of a particular group by comparing them to a notable member of that group—you might hear people talk about a basketball player who is “a young Michael Jordan,” or a wise person as being “a regular Solomon.” We also flip it around and use a normal word to refer to a particular (and often notable) person: William Shakespeare is often referred to as “the Bard,” for instance.

But those aren’t the only types of antonomasia around. If you refer to someone’s wife as “the Missus” or the Pope as “His Holiness,” that’s antonomasia. You are substituting one name—in these cases, an honorific—for the person’s given name. And if you want to get particularly literary, there is a form of antonomasia that only appears in literature, where a character is given a name that suggests their main quality, like “Squire Allworthy” or “Captain Awesome.”

Antonomasia first came into English around 1500, and comes from the Greek verb antonomazein, which means “to name instead.”

"Of the people, by the people, for the people...."

Definition: repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect

“...government of the people, by the people, for the people...”
—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

Epistrophe is a rhetorical and literary device used for emphasis. You would think that the emphasis would be on the word or phrase being repeated, but epistrophe is often used in order to highlight subtle differences in the repeated words or phrase. Taking the Gettysburg Address excerpt as an example, the repetition of “the people” becomes a cadence which invites the listener to weigh the differences that each of those three introductory prepositions bring to the phrase: of, by, and for.

Epistrophe appears quite a bit in drama, where the repetition can increase dramatic tension or provide subtle commentary on the action. You can see both in this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.

Epistrophe is from a Greek word that literally means “turning about”: the repeated words “turn back” on each other. There is an opposite to epistrophe—anaphora, or the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a sentence or clause, also used for emphasis. Lincoln uses anaphora as well as epistrophe in the Gettysburg Address: “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.”

"One burned steer coming up for Table Five!"

Definition: the substitution of a disagreeable, offensive, or disparaging expression for an agreeable or inoffensive one, or an expression so substituted

“Your old man won’t be pleased if you stay out too late.”

We’re all familiar with euphemisms—nice ways of referring to something bad, impolite, or distasteful. But we’re less familiar with euphemism’s sibling, dysphemism. Dysphemism is an impolite way of referring to something nice.

Dysphemisms pop up all the time in informal use, like the above old man instead of “father,” or ball and chain for one’s spouse. But nowhere are they more common than in the argot of the greasy spoon (a dysphemism for the word “diner”), immortalized in the 1941 book by Jack Smiley, Hash House Lingo. Toast was called a board or a shingle; tea was boiled leaves and coffee was mud; bullets were baked beans, and a steak, well-done, was a burned steer.

In the topsy-turvy world of English, not all dysphemisms are used to diss. They can be used within a group affectionately, like a parent calling their child rugrat, or a wife calling her husband old man.

Dysphemism is a blend of the prefix dys-, which means “bad,” and -phemism, shortened from the earlier word euphemism. Dysphemism is a relatively recent addition to the rhetorical family, showing up in English in the late 1800s.


31 Rhetorical Devices and Examples from 'Alliteration' to 'Zeugma'