June 19, 2006

For the millionth time, it's not hyperbole

About a million people have written to me to explain to me very gently and patronizingly (the. way. you. talk. to. a. very. young. child) that the answer to my puzzle about Daniel Gilbert's strange remark about forgetting word pronunciations is that he didn't mean it literally; it was hyperbole, my correspondents tell me: exaggeration for rhetorical or humorous effect.

Let me make it perfectly clear to you morons all the kind people who have written to me: I agree he didn't really mean what he said. He was intending to be light and funny. I realize that, and I didn't need you turkeys to tell me thank you sincerely for your constructive advice and assistance. But as I have now said in roughly a million emails, it seems to me that you are all wrong. His remark is not construable as hyperbole. Here's why.

Hyperbole takes a claim and exaggerates it, so that if the hyperbolic version were true, the original claim would be true a fortiori. I do know about humorous uses of hyperbole. I believe I used it in the first line of this post; wouldn't you say so? Take that as an example. My underlying claim is that lots of people wrote to me. If my exaggeration in calling it millions were really true, the underlying claim would be all the truer.

Or take the remark that Jan Freeman quoted yesterday from Mark Liberman about why overheard cellphone conversations are annoying: he says that when you are listening to only one end, "you can't help yourself from trying to fill in the blanks. And after a few seconds of this, your paracingulate medial prefrontal cortex is throbbing like a stubbed toe." His underlying claim is that the part of your brain that tries to figure out what the other person is saying gets a little bit of a workout and it causes discomfort. But it doesn't really hurt with the sudden agony of a stubbed toe. If it did, however, his claim about it causing discomfort would be all the truer.

As I have tried to explain, patiently but fruitlessly, to most of the hyperbolically enumerated million dimwits people who wrote in, Gilbert's figure of speech is very different. Take his underlying (broadly true) claim that parents don't get to go to the theater much after the kids are born. If he had said that parents forget what going to the theater is like, that would be hyperbole (they don't forget, it just becomes a tiny bit unfamiliar as far as recent experience is concerned). And if the hyperbolic claim were true — if they completely forgot what happens in theaters — then the underlying claim would be all the truer. However, he says instead that parents actually forget how to pronounce words like "theater". If they did, that would not make the underlying claim true. The loss of this snippet of pronunciation information would not mean that they had forgotten their experiences of theater. Nor would it mean they couldn't go: they get in a taxi, take it to Broadway, and point; or they could tell people they wanted to go to the big building downtown with the lights and the curtain and the actors.

The peculiar thing about Gilbert's purported figure of speech is that it is not hyperbole. Not unless you adopt some very weird counterfactual assumptions. The psycholinguist Mark Seidenberg points out to me that you actually can't forget the pronunciation of a word, because it's all bound up with the pronunciation of similar sounding words. Even if you could, the meanings of the words could stay with you (I don't know whether "sisal" is supposed to rhyme with "thistle", "sizzle", or "Faisal", but I know my apartment has sisal matting in the living room). You have to adopt an extraordinarily strange view in order to have it as a presupposition that "cannot pronounce the word movie" is an exaggeration of "has not seen any movies in quite a while".

So don't keep telling me it's hyperbole for humorous effect. It isn't that. And since it doesn't seem especially funny, I was just wondering why anyone would ever do this kind of thing (saying something about words that couldn't be true instead of something about things that could). If it created instant mirth, fine. But not many people seem to think it can be justified solely by merriment creation. In fact most of the people seemed to be satisfied just with understanding its drift, and explaining it to me. What we have here is a failure to communicate. My fault, I suppose. I just haven't managed to explain my feeling of puzzlement sufficiently well.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 19, 2006 09:59 PM