Language Corner

The Super Bowl’s ‘hyper’ nature

February 3, 2020

Take a championship American professional football game. Add an important name, like “Super Bowl.” Use Roman numerals instead of Arabic numerals to keep track of how many there have been, to underscore that This Is Big.

Charge a lot for the commercials, many of which are released on social media (which costs nothing) before the big game. Add a flamboyant halftime show, which makes the whole event about four hours long, an hour more than most football games, which means more opportunities to sell those expensive commercials.

Start the breathless television coverage of the game days before kickoff, with special “media days” when reporters can get up close and personal to the players.

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To build even more excitement, have another company replace the football players with adorable puppies, with their own pregame shows. Or dogs, which you can adopt! Or kittens, or cats, by another company, because why not?

Move a single letter in “Super Bowl.” Now you have “Superb Owl.” Commence the advertising.

Remember, this is all because of a single football game. All of the above, one would think, could appear in the dictionary for the definition of “hyperbole.” Certainly, it’s filled with “hype.”

Merriam-Webster defines “hyperbole” as “extravagant exaggeration (such as ‘mile-high ice-cream cones’).” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.”

The word is pronounced “high-PER-bowl-lee,” though the OED’s pronunciation for US  English is “high-PER-bowl-lah.” (You may also hear it pronounced “HIGH-per-bowl,” but that’s not an alternative.)  It entered English around 1529 as a rhetorical device, the OED says, arising from a Greek word for “excess” or “exaggeration.” You may have heard that “hyperbole” came from an ancient Athenian demagogue, Hyperbolus, who, as M-W says, “often made exaggerated promises and claims that whipped people into a frenzy.” But that’s mere “hyperbole”; Hyperbolus had nothing to do with it. (His real claim to fame is being the last person who was formally ostracized, or shunned, by Athens, in the early fifth century BC.)  

A blog about “hyperbole” for Grammarly, popular software to check spelling and grammar, uses such examples as: “She’s asked a million questions. You could have knocked me over with a feather. He’s as quiet as a mouse. Now I’ve seen everything.” And it warns against the “hyperbolic” use of “literally,” saying “Although this usage is widespread and even accepted by some dictionaries, it’s generally a good idea to avoid it because many readers find it annoying.”

Many people would define “hyperbole” as not mere exaggeration, but over-the-top, outrageous exaggeration that would be hard to believe, like claiming to be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” (That statement would fit the OED definition of “hyperbole” as  “not intended to be understood literally,” since the doctor who gave it later said the patient had dictated it, and the link to the original statement is dead.)

The Super Bowl “hype” looks to be in a different class than that, hyperbole writ large. Note, though, that both dictionary definitions above imply that “hyperbole” is not used for something real. So by those definitions, what’s happening with the Super Bowl is not hype at all, because the days of ad nauseam coverage, the animal imitators, and the coattail-riding events are all real.

Let us turn, then, to what the OED calls a “rare” definition of “hyperbole”: “Excess, extravagance.” There’s no hint that the thing does not exist. The events surrounding the Super Bowl are indeed excessive or extravagant. Or excessively extravagant.

“Super” is a prefix that makes something bigger, better, higher. But so many things are “super” that it can lose its intensity. In the hyperbolic arc of describing something that is above ordinary, “hyper” ranks higher than “super.” “Supermarkets” on steroids have become “hypermarkets.” Surprisingly, that term has not caught on in the US; those stores, which sell groceries, clothing, and so much more, are called “big-box stores” or “superstores.”

The “hype” around Super Bowl has certainly exceeded the level of “super.” Anyone want to kick off renaming it the “Hyper Bowl”? At least then, the mispronunciation can be acceptable.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.