John H. Wilson: Hyperbole is losing effect

10/02/2012 12:00 AM

10/01/2012 5:46 PM

During a recent observation of an elementary classroom teacher’s lesson, I noted the following responses to her students’ answers: seven uses of “awesome,” four of “incredible,” four of “exactly,” three of “wow” and three of “absolutely.” All of these acknowledgments were for routine and simple answers that did not demand deep and complex thinking. More appropriate might have been “correct,” “that’s right,” “OK” or “yes.”

Upon reviewing the lesson with the teacher/intern and inquiring about the exaggerated responses, I was told that the students have become accustomed to this hyperbole. And, I am thinking, why not? We are bombarded by hyperbolic language in today’s culture and, to borrow a concept from economics, to the point of diminished returns – so much excess in our use of description that the original purpose of hyperbole is rendered ineffective.

Notice what we hear during the current political campaigns: “Obama’s policies are completely destroying the free-market system.” “Romney’s intentions to change our tax system will totally devastate seniors’ future.” “Biden’s remarks were incredibly and outlandishly naive.” “Ryan’s position on Medicare will ‘drive Grandma, in her wheelchair, off a cliff.’”

Advertising by merchants represents this mentality with fliers that claim “the most unbelievable sale in our entire history” and the like.

Television and radio messages exude hyperbole designed to attract viewers and listeners. Many of us have learned to embellish our descriptions of a person’s character flaws or strengths to make a stronger case for the point we are arguing.

We have become so accustomed to and enamored by hyperbolic forms of speech that a more sensible and accurate use of our modifiers seems too mundane or less likely to command others’ attention. It seems to me that we are tragically assuring the absolute ruination of man’s very most precious instrument for more colorfully and eloquently conveying our always inspiring and compelling messages.

JOHN H. WILSON

Wichita

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