Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Whether you think the title of this week’s column is exaggeration or hyperbole, you’re probably right. The words mean approximately the same thing. But as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Knowing a bit about the two words’ histories could help you rhetorically catch lightning in a bottle instead of just a glowing beetle.
The Latinate prefix ex- can mean a number of different things. Most often, it means “out from” (as in exclaim), but we use it in English a lot to indicate “former” (ex-husband). It can also indicate “completely, thoroughly” as in excruciating, exasperating, and — to get to the point — exaggerate.
The English exaggerate traces back to the Latin verb aggerare “to heap up, form into a heap” — originally in a physical sense. Exaggerare, then, indicated “to thoroughly (or overly) heap up” and, in a metaphorical sense, “to increase in significance.” By the early 16th century, that word’s past participle, exaggeratus, had given us the English exaggerate and its various forms.
At the time, though, the primary sense of the word was simply “to accumulate,” but recorded examples of the word meaning “to overstate” have been found from as early as the 1560s.
Though hyperbole came through Latin to find its place in English, it traces back to Greek. Hyper- is a fairly common prefix meaning “over, beyond” (think hyperactive kids), and the bole comes from ballein, a verb meaning “to throw.” (Ballein is also at the root of ballistics.) This idea of “to throw beyond” bears a certain physicality to it, but as far back as Classical Greece, in works by Aristotle and other philosophers, the word indicated not a physical throwing but a rhetorical device.
If there is a difference between exaggerate and hyperbole, it’s that link to rhetoric: Hyperbole was — and to many still is — a technical term from literary analysis and speech-writing to describe the specific effect of overstating something’s size or importance. Exaggerate is a more general-purpose word.
But before you think that usage line has been drawn in permanent ink, know this: Merriam-Webster Dictionaries defines hyperbole as “extravagant exaggeration.”
Unaltered featured image: Shutterstock
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