Hyperbole And Litotes

To illustrate these general points, let us now take a closer look at the two contrasting devices of hyperbole and litotes.

10.1.1 Hyperbole

Exaggeration hi colloquial talk is often incredible because at variance with known fact. 'He's got acres and acres of garden' is an overstatement if we happen to know that the plot indicated is no more than one acre in extent. We are then able to judge that the speaker means no more than ' He has a very large garden'. In other cases, an exaggerated statement is not just incredible in the given situation but in any situation - because outside the bounds of possibility. 'She's as old as the hills' is an assertion which cannot be swallowed whole under any circumstances. The nineteenth-century humorist Sydney Smith is supposed to have said to a neighbour: 'Heat, ma'am! It was so dreadful here that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.'2 The lady addressed would have been under no necessity to find out whether the remark was true or not, as its content was too fantastic to be believed. Such absurdities occur, with more serious intent, in literature: Miranda, hi The Tempest [I.ii], urges her father to continue his narrative of their misfortunes with 'Your tale, sir, would cure deafness'.

Hyperbole, like the other two figures, is frequently concerned with personal values and sentiments: that is, with making subjective claims which, however exaggerated, we could not verify unless we were somehow able to get inside the cranium of the person about whom the claims are made. The addressee has to rely entirely on the general standards of society and on his knowledge of the speaker in judging the truth of such claims. When Cob, in Every Man in His Humour [IV.ii] says 'I do honour the very flea of his dog', he maintains that his esteem for the man is so great that it extends also to the man's dog, and not only to the dog, but even to the flea battening on the dog's blood. No one could take it upon himself to refute such an extravagant claim, which can be neither proved nor disproved. But if we change the issue from a question of truth into a question of belief, then clearly the most credulous of mortals would treat it as absurd.

Some might say the same about Hamlet's outburst, when after leaping into the open grave of Ophelia, he counters the shrill rhetoric of her brother Laertes with:

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum.

However, Hamlet might reply that this is no exaggeration. He wants to assert that his love is limitless in quantity and unique in quality: that it can by no means be weighed against anyone else's, not even a brother's. The conversational hyperbole of' I wouldn't go through that door for a million pounds' is of similar effect. The intention of the speaker is to tell us that however big the inducement, he would stay away: so he thinks of some enormously large figure to represent the maximum. We would scarcely expect him to agree on an exact figure (say .£1,500,000) for which he would change his mind. Subjective statements of this kind may seem like exaggerations from the point of view of an onlooker, but from the speaker's viewpoint may be utterly serious.

10.1.2 Litotes or Rhetorical Understatement

The figure of understatement, litotes, is by no means so prominent in literature as hyperbole: perhaps because it has none of the potential absurdity of the other tropes. Whereas hyperbole is a figure which stretches, perhaps almost to breaking point, the communicative resources of the language, it is difficult to see how a failure to say enough about a subject can overstep the bounds of reason or acceptability. The effect of litotes therefore depends a great deal on what we know of the situation. In contrast to the hyperbole of Hamlet's harangue from the grave of Ophelia, I now quote a rather more characteristic litotes in which he describes his father:

He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.

From what we learn by Hamlet's behaviour throughout the play, it is clear that these words do not do justice to his feelings. It is not that the statement is untrue: rather, it is true in the manner of a platitude - it reveals nothing of the emotion that Hamlet expresses elsewhere.

The term 'litotes' is sometimes reserved for a particular kind of understatement in which the speaker uses a negative expression where a positive one would have been more forceful and direct: 'It's not bad'; 'He's no Hercules'; 'She's no oil painting'; 'She's not exactly a pauper'; etc. These resemble the example from Hamlet in that they are not so much untrue as non-committal. They are statements which ascribe to somebody or something a particular position on an evaluative scale - in the last case, that represented by the antonymy 'rich'/'poor'.

To indicate the positive meaning 'rich', we take the term pauper and negate it: 'not a pauper'. But as pauper refers to the extreme position at the poverty end of the scale, its negation refers to the whole of the rest of the scale. The part designated by the word rich is only part of this remainder:

rich poor rich poor rich rich rich not a pauper a pauper

Hence, although the speaker intends us to understand 'She is rich', he leaves open, in what he says, the question of whether she is rich or not.

io. 1.3 The Uses of Hyperbole and Litotes

In so far as they mainly apply to evaluative meaning, hyperbole and litotes serve to colour the expression of personal feelings and opinions, which may be either of a positive or a negative kind (enthusiasm, disgust, etc.). Litotes expresses an overt lack of commitment, and so implies a desire to suppress or conceal one's true attitude; but paradoxically this may, like hyperbole, be a mode of intensification, suggesting that the speaker's feelings are too deep for plain expression. Because of its two-layer significance-superficial indifference and underlying commitment - litotes is often treated as a category of irony. The ironical import is seen, for example, in the stoical flippancy of Mercutio's reference to his fatal wound in Romeo and Juliet [lILi]:

'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough,

'twill serve.

Hyperbole is typically used in eulogy, and litotes in disparagement. In everyday speech, they represent antithetical postures, and tend to go with contrasting philosophical attitudes: optimism and idealism in the case of hyperbole, pessimism and cynicism in the case of litotes. An association of sex may even be suggested: hyperbole seems predominantly a characteristic of female speech and litotes of male speech, so that 'It wasn't too bad' as an expression of approval would almost certainly come from a man, and' It was absolutely fabulous' from a woman. When we interpret such remarks as exaggerated or understated, we recognize not so much the discrepancy with truth (which may be subjective and inaccessible to observation) as the posture itself, which is revealed through expectation of character, tone of voice, and so on.

In poetry, hyperbole is often a means of celebrating human ideals - for instance, ideals of love, of religion, or (as in the example from Tamburlaine in §10.1.1 above) of worldly power. Perhaps it is in the expression of religious ideals that the contrast between the standards of heart and sotil on the one hand and the standards of reason and common sense on the other are most apparent. When StPeter asks [Matthew 18] how often he should forgive his brother's offences, Jesus replies 'I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but Until seventy times seven', by spiritual standards, an understatement for 'always'. Similarly, when George Herbert ends a famous hymn

Even eternity is too short To extol Thee, the sentiment is far-fetched by any standards applicable to man; but applied to God, and from a purely doctrinal point of view, it is no more than the truth.

Litotes, although not a common feature of later English verse, is a stock device of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon period. Typical examples arc 'not at all did he promise her adornments', said of the father of St. Juliana when threatening her with violent death [Juliana, 118]; and 'they did not care for war', said of cowards fleeing from the field of battle [The Battle of Maldon, 192]. This characteristic of style reflects the ethic of warfare and tribal loyalty celebrated in Germanic heroic poetry: the ideal warrior expressed himself by deeds rather than words: his use of language was reserved and defensive, communicating his attitudes by implication rather than by open declaration. In the Christian era, this ethic was adapted easily enough to the Christian heroism of saints and martyrs.

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  • dehab
    How can a student use hyperbole and litotes in their everyday writing?
    2 months ago

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