June 27, 2006

It's not hyperbole, but what is it?

Back on Father's Day, Daniel Gilbert attributed a form of aphasia to parents: "Movies, theater, parties, travel—those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce". Geoff Pullum took Gilbert to task for "taking a straightforward claim about the world that is arguably true and turning it, for absolutely no reason that I can detect, into a claim about language that is wildly and demonstrably false". And then, as Geoff told us the next day, "a million people [wrote] ... to explain ... very gently and patronizingly ... that he didn't mean it literally; it was hyperbole..." So Geoff explained, not especially gently, why Gilbert's turn of phrase "is not construable as hyperbole", and disappeared into the New Hampshire forests, leaving the rest of us here at Language Log Plaza to deal with a tidal wave of additional correspondence from readers.

I've forwarded to Santa Cruz the many helpful genealogical, psychological and medical hypotheses concerning Geoff himself. The sacks of messages that can be paraphrased as "yes it is too" have been turned over to an intern (for internment, of course). The others went on my to-blog list (a RIRO queue, patent pending). One of the most interesting of these came from Catherine Burriss, who asked

Does the impossibility of Daniel Gilbert's expression classify it as another figure of speech, in which the effect of the saying comes not from an exaggeration of a truth, but rather from its absolute impossibility?  If such a figure of speech has been classified, the poetry scholars and rhetoricians would know better than I would. In a way, it is an associative exaggeration, an impossible, but still associated, consequence of the underlying claim; the parents have become so unfamiliar with theater that they have lost all knowledge of it, even that which is impossible to lose. 

I don't think that it's exactly "absolute impossibility" that's at issue. I like Catherine's term "associative exaggeration". More precisely, examples of this kind (and there are many of them) seem to be scalar similes or metaphors that evoke an absurdly exaggerated generalization of things associated with the situation under consideration. This could be considered a specifically scalar kind of metalepsis, "[r]eference to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a farfetched causal relationship, or through an implied intermediate substitution of terms. Often used for comic effect through its preposterous exaggeration."

Think about Thomas Pynchon's deathless blub for Richard Fariña's Been down so long it looks like up to me: "This book comes on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch." As Geoff explained about forgetting how to pronounce movies, this is not hyperbole in the sense of "A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in I could sleep for a year or This book weighs a ton". There is no Handel in Fariña's book, not even one kazoo, and the only chorus is associated with an absent-minded malapropism on p. 312:

A phonograph needle was dropped into place by the swimmer who'd been hit on the head by one of Gnossos' silver dollars, and a percussive chorus of marching mummers rendered [sic] the smoky air.

No, Pynchon is not exaggerating the quantity of things that are already literally present in the book. He's inviting us to imagine an absurd hybrid apotheosis of worship, recreation, celebration, artistry and bombast -- 1966 in a nutshell.

Or consider these typically bluesy lines from Eve Merriam's The Company Agent (1956)

Got me a blister barndoor wide.
Been walking so long, forgot how to ride.

The "barndoor wide" business is standard hyperbole -- it's a big blister, etc. But the idea that lack of experience is going to make you forget how to ride is even more "wildly and demonstrably false" than the idea that parenthood makes you forget how to pronounce movie. You could be in a coma in an ambulance and not "forget how to ride". Merriam's metaphor makes its point by inviting us into a fantasy of hyper-empiricist epistemology, in which lack of experience eventually leads to the decay not only of the ability to act, but even the ability to be acted on. That's some serious lack of experience.

And you can use a similar illogical logic to quantify lack of interest rather than lack of experience, by inviting us into a world where the withdrawal of attention spreads to basic associated knowledge and evaporates it. Thus Catherine Fox's recent interview with John Portman (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6/18/2006) ends like this:

Q: Any thoughts of retirement?
A: I'm going to keep on keeping on. I can't even spell retirement. I love what I do. It's not work to me.

This is not the only example of "can't even spell retirement" on the web, and expressions like "doesn't know the word quit" are not exactly unknown either.

However, I think that Aristotle missed the boat on this one, and as far as I know, his successors haven't caught it either. Hyperbole is too specific, and metalepsis is too general: is there a term for this? Not that Geoff will like it any better if it has a name.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 27, 2006 07:20 AM