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Saying you can avoid hyperbole may be overstating things

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By Reggie Ponder
Columnist

Thursday, June 14, 2018

“I’d be better off in a pine box/On a slow train back to Georgia/Or in the grey walls of a prison doing time/I think I’d rather die and go to hell and face the Devil/Than to lie here with you and him together on my mind.”

Those of you who are fans of country music may remember those lines from a song that was a big hit for Doug Stone in the early 1990s. For me the song represents an era in country music that saw talented singers such as Stone, Allen Jackson and Clint Black build further on the “new traditional” style that Randy Travis had brought onto the scene in the mid-1980s.

The other thing that stands out to me is how the words paint a vivid picture of misery that is readily recognizable and thick with real emotional power.

The words also don’t work if you take them literally. I’ll go out on a limb of sorts and assert that the songwriters, Johnny Macrae and Steve Clark, were not saying that they actually wanted to die, or be in prison. They certainly didn’t mean in a literal way that they wished to go to hell, or even that they thought such dire circumstances would be relatively better than the emotional misery described in the song.

I think the point is that the person being written about in the song is trying to say they are miserable to a degree that’s difficult to express in words, and that in order to try to put it into words they are resorting to hyperbole.

I’ll admit “hyperbole” is one of those big words that I would try to avoid if it weren’t for the unfortunate circumstance of not being able to think of a better term. But it’s just too cumbersome to say or write “intentional overstatement employed for literary or rhetorical effect” over and over, so I guess we’re stuck with our four syllable “hyperbole.”

And I wonder whether hyperbole explains a lot of statements people make that are misunderstood. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be careful in how we say things — in fact I have devoted much of my life work in two distinct professions, journalism and pastoral ministry, to encouraging precision in language and communication — but I also understand that all of us on occasion say things that we don’t mean in the exact way we wind up saying.

When you told someone their suggestion was the worst idea you had ever heard, did you really mean that? Would you want to defend the proposition that no other idea you had ever come across was in any way worse?

We find ourselves resorting to overstatement because we fear a more levelheaded assertion will be ignored or not taken seriously enough.

As an experiment I’m going to try going a full week without overstating anything.

I’m shooting for a week but am afraid I might not make it through the rest of the day.

Reggie Ponder is a staff writer for The Daily Advance.

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