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Verbal Energy

How much ‘overexaggeration’ is enough?

In light of the incident of the American Olympians in Rio, a look at the vocabulary of overstatement, understatement.

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    United States' Ryan Lochte checks his time in a men's 4x200-meter freestyle heat during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Aug. 9, 2016.
    Michael Sohn/AP
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The story of the American Olympian who either was or wasn’t robbed at gunpoint in Rio had many twists and turns. But one of the constants of his mea culpas afterward was his insistence that he had “overexaggerated” in his initial account of what happened. 

That word seemed to make it into the headline of every account of this head-scratching episode. 

All this has me thinking about our vocabulary for stretching the truth. So how much “overexaggeration” would have been enough? 

Exaggerate, according to the Online Ety­mology Dictionary, came into English in the 1530s from a Latin word meaning “to pile up” or “to accumulate.” That’s what it meant in English, too, at first. 

One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s examples of this reads (with spelling modernized), “With their flipping and flapping up and down in the dirt they exaggerate a mountain of mire.” But by the 1560s, exaggerate meant “to overstate.” 

Had our Olympian apologized for “overhyping” his exploits in Rio, he would have drawn on another word from the “Do we really need this word?” category.

Overhype seems to get a free pass in dictionaries. Several respectable ones include it, defining it as “To promote or publicize to excess,” or some such, with no suggestion that thoughtful writers might avoid it. Harrumph. Where are the American Heritage usage experts when you need them? 

My gripe against overhype is that it’s duplicative. The etymology dictionary describes hype, the noun, as “probably in part a back-formation of hyperbole.” Hyperbole comes from Greek words suggesting something thrown “over” (or beyond). Thus overhype says the same thing twice, once in English and then again in Greek.

Hyperbole, however, is a perfectly respectable figure of speech. It consists, as Oxford notes, of an “exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.” Note that last bit: “not intended to be understood literally.” A key point, no? 

Hyperbole has a counterpart: litotes (LYE-toh-teez). It’s like understatement but a little subtler. As Oxford defines it, it’s a “figure of speech, in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary; an instance of this.” 

Oxford cites two biblical examples. One is from the account of the shipwreck that landed the apostle Paul and companions on Malta, after many days “when no small tempest lay on us.” Small tempest indeed – it was clearly a truly harrowing storm.

The second is the apostle’s reference to himself as “a Jew of Tarsus,... a citizen of no mean city.” Mean once meant “middling,” and, by the time of the King James Bible, “merely mediocre.” But to modern ears, Paul seems to suggest, to say without saying, that, au contraire, Tarsus was one of the meanest, baddest cities on the Mediterranean.

You can definitely have too much overexaggeration. But a little litotes can go a long way.

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