Can a metaphor be hyperbole too?

A colleague’s daughter is in a dispute with her teacher about whether a metaphor can also be a hyperbole. The daughter says yes. The teacher says no. I say the answer should be a raging, exploding elephant of obviousness with side-mounted machine guns.

Metaphors operate on analogy, with the understanding that the analogy is appropriate; hyperbole operates on inappropriate comparison or magnitude; a hyperbolic metaphor is one that operates on an analogy that is inappropriate in magnitude. A simple search of “hyperbolic metaphor” will show that many people far better acquainted with English and its figures than this intellectually rigid teacher consider metaphor and hyperbole to be compatible. Simile and hyperbole are also compatible.

The teacher may think that because hyperbole operates on one axis (magnitude) and metaphor on another (analogy) they are incompatible, or that a metaphor by definition is ridiculous and so it would be redundant to call a metaphor a hyperbole, or that a metaphor plays on only certain aspects of the resemblance so any disproportionate features will be disregarded. But in fact we have quality and quantity expections in objects, and the context may be set up so that the mismatch in magnitude is clearly intentional and cannot be disregarded.

I can say “her breasts are ripe oranges” and we will understand that they are about the size of oranges; there is no exaggeration of magnitude. And I can say “her breasts are burning Zeppelins” and whether it is hyperbole is arguable because I may be comparing only the shape, not the size. But if I say “Melanie’s breasts are ripe oranges, Lotte’s are water balloons, and Erika’s are burning Zeppelins,” we clearly have a comparison that in the last stretches the magnitude to hyperbole.

Likewise, with questions of quality, if I say “his workplace is a Nazi death camp,” it’s obviously a metaphor, but it’s also such an extreme image that it is undeniably hyperbolic.

And one should be aware that metaphor and hyperbole can exist side by side without being actually in the same figure. If I say “Erika’s breasts are burning Zeppelins that any sane man would run across a busy highway to worship,” the metaphor is the image of the burning Zeppelins (it could also be hyperbole, but only if it is understood that size is also being implied, not just shape) but the hyperbole is the statement about their influence on behaviour.

So there it is. The teacher may think she’s an expert, but the raging, exploding elephant of obviousness with side-mounted machine guns is walking into her classroom…


11 responses to “Can a metaphor be hyperbole too?

  1. Go get ’em, James! Loved the side-mounted machine guns.

  2. reading this made me so happy to find someone who agreed with me! i am studying english and my teachers were umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether they can co-exist. my quote is ‘My son is everything to me.” I believe this to be hyperbolic metaphor because:
    metaphor: because his son is not literally everything ever, but also
    hyperbole: compares him to the extreme of infinity i guess, which to me makes it both.
    and thats what im arguing in my speech.

    ps. love the breast examples 😛

  3. I’m 100 percent with you, your friend’s daughter and everybody else who thinks metaphor and hyperbole are compatible. I am studying English Lit. and am currently deep in close textual analysis of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Reading a section over and over the best way I could think to describe it was ‘hyperbolic metaphor’, so I googled that phrase to see if it was in any kind of common usage and came upon this fine blog.
    I shall be using the term in my report for sure.

  4. Queen Gogira Pennyworth

    “Hyperbolic metaphor” is my favorite combination of words in the English language. True story.

  5. nicely done :3

  6. What makes you think the teacher was a woman? Sounds more like a hard headed man to me.

    • It’s true that the colleague initially didn’t mention the sex of the teacher, but on the other hand she didn’t correct me when I responded with the female pronoun. So that’s what I have to go by. But yes, I did make the initial assumption. Not sure why.

  7. I have to say, the teacher is likely only worried about the distinction because of standardized testing. There is a great deal in English that is open to argument, but testing pretends that there is only one answer to things that have many interpretations in reality. Sometimes teachers end up explaining things in a way that makes sense for testing because student placement /and/ teacher job security can rely heavily on testing results. Thank you, No Child Left Behind.

  8. do you have any pictures of Erika?

  9. There must be a clear distinction between things…whether you are teaching grammar or figurative language. To not confuse students a distinction must be made at this level. Once the clear distinction is able to be recognized then debate can follow. The clearest way to explain to students is to say; metaphor compares two things. Hyperbole doesn’t, it’s simple exaggeration. It’s like having a basic understanding of a novel and its obvious meaning, before going onto deeper analysis. If this is university or high school level, fine open up the debate but I really don’t think this is about proving the teacher wrong. There is such a thing as confusing students.

    • The most confused adults I have met are ones who were taught there are clear, hard distinctions where in reality there are none. Teaching students things that are false and have to be unlearned later is an impediment to future understanding; either they will cling wrongly to the simple distinctions, or they will decide their teacher just can’t be trusted. Yes, you do need to teach things bit by bit, but there is nothing in the teaching of metaphor that requires you to say it can’t be hyperbole, and nothing in the teaching of hyperbole that requires you to say it can’t be metaphor. You just needn’t address the question at first – we very often avoid the edge cases in the initial teaching and get to them after. They become a thing for a student to explore, discover, think about. Which is much harder if you’ve built a fence around it.

      Consider someone being taught to cook. You may start to teach them about pies by showing them double-crust pies with sweet fillings. Nothing you show them at that point will involve meat or other savoury fillings. You’ll get to that later. Maybe at the same time you’ll also be teaching them about meatloaf without addressing met dishes with crusts or in pies. But nothing in any of that requires you to tell them that pies must have two crusts and sweet filling, or that a ground meat main dish can not be in pie form or have a crust. If you tell them that, then you are making trouble for them and for you when you get to beef Wellington, tourtière, and shepherd’s pie.

      In the original case in question, the teacher is adamantly insisting that the two can’t be the same. If the teacher knows this is not true, it’s irresponsible to say it is. The student has obviously progressed to the level where this needs to be addressed. If the teacher feels it’s too advanced to bring up, he or she should say so. But to give a simple and simply false answer is the worst kind of foolishness. In the case in question, though, I doubt the teacher even knows it’s not true – most likely the teacher was taught by exactly the simplistic, tidy method you advocate. And we see what results it gets.

      Don’t teach frankly false things. Everyone learns incomplete truths; everyone passes through areas of misunderstanding; everyone has to learn simple things before complex things. But no one ever needs to be told “X is true” when X is false, or “X can never be Y” when X and Y overlap.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s