Hyperbole: The Official Language of the 21st Century
Let’s get one thing out of the way. The title of this piece is already hyperbole, it’s like a hyperbole centipede. I know this.
But what I’ve noticed for quite some time now is that when we speak, we so often don’t mean the words we say. I’m not talking about being disingenuous or lying, this problem runs deeper — not within ourselves, but in the use of our language and how we interpret our circumstances.
The most obvious example is the word “literally.” I won’t condescend to you and define it, but it certainly isn’t an empty word to add emphasis — it has meaning. If something was so funny that you “literally died,” we’d mourn you … maybe.
This may seem petty, but when we no longer care about what words mean, why even say them? Why not make our own grunts and sounds?
We speak in hyperbole. We say things like “I need this” when we’re talking about a dessert or a drink. We say “I have to do this” to justify something optional. But this isn’t because the meanings of the words have changed necessarily. Our interpretation of our circumstances, that’s what’s changed. Our privilege as Americans has led us to believe our luxuries are needs, that minor inconveniences are major problems.
Words must maintain their meanings. Our tendency towards hyperbole has given way to us believing our exaggerated statements, rationalizing our behavior to ourselves with no concrete justification. The phrase “I have to do it this way” is a great example. Picture a person doing something wasteful at best and morally dubious at the worst. Their defense of their suspect behavior is often that they have to do it this way. But they don’t. They don’t have to do anything any one way. There’s nothing tethering them to that methodology. And yet, so many speak as though they’re bound to the words they haphazardly spew while eschewing their real meaning.
We need to break away from this embarrassing way of speaking. Our near constant hyperbolic use of our language is born exclusively of privilege. Only in a society of plenty can our words mean so little. Hyperbolic language is indicative of a people with so much that they’ve become disassociated from the language as it’s written, instead tending towards a version of the language that speaks to just how much they have. People in developing nations don’t say things like, ”I literally can’t even,” or, “I need this latte.” We should be embarrassed, we should be ashamed. We tackle privilege daily in our discussions, but we forget just how much privilege so many of us have. Only in a society of tremendous privilege could the language evolve to accentuate our completely self-centered pleasure-seeking behaviors.
Language must have meaning.