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I've often heard people say "hyperbole" exactly as it is written, "hi-per-bole", instead of how it is actually pronounced: "hi-pear-bow-lee". How did it get such an unusually different pronunciation from such a simple spelling?

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Hyperbole seems to be one of the few English words ending in "e" where all of the letters are pronounced — I would say it is pronounced just like its spelling! :) –  Kosmonaut May 20 '11 at 15:14

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Hyperbole comes from Greek ὑπερβολή, via Latin. When English adopts words from other languages, it often keeps both the spelling and pronunciation close to those of the origin language. Since other languages have different spelling conventions from ours — in particular, in many languages, a final e isn’t silent — many borrowed words have disparities like this: compare forte, mocha, jalapeno, etc.

(Another common cause of disparities between spelling and pronunciation is that spelling is much more resistant to change, so a spelling is often a fossil of an older pronunciation: that’s where things like the silent l in walk, talk come from. But that’s not what’s going on in this case.)

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I'd only add that the Greek letter eta (η) doesn't have a directly corresponding English vowel. Depending on your pronunciation system, it's either pronounced like a long "a" (ay), or a long "e" (ee). It's usually transliterated into the Latin alphabet as an "e" because there are times when the Greek epsilon (ε) gets lengthened into an eta as the form of the word changes (for instance, in Koine Greek, when a verb beginning with ε is conjugated into the aorist tense. –  Ken Smith May 20 '11 at 20:40

It really doesn't make sense to pronounce it 'hy-PER-bol-e' rather than 'hyperbole' because the adjective is pronounced hyperbolic, as it reads, not 'hy-PER-bol-ic.

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This reasoning does not hold water. You don't put the stress in geometry, history, automaton, president onto the same syllable as in geometrical, historical, automatic, presidential. The stress changing its position between different parts of speech is the complete norm, and not an exception by any means. And in fact there is that thing called initial-stress-derived nouns that are distinguishable from the corresponding verbs through nothing but the stress. –  RegDwigнt Jun 17 '14 at 18:49
@Joe, thanks for your answer. I'm not sure how your answer addresses the question, though; perhaps editing it to address why the word is pronounced the way it is, rather than simply whether it makes sense to pronounce it that way, might help. –  Matt Gutting Jun 17 '14 at 19:24

It's an example of a class of words that came into English from Greek, and retained a final "-e" as a separate syllable. Most such words are either names (Penelope, Calliope, Dione, Selene) or only in technical or learned use (synecdoche). Hyperbole is one that is slightly more widely used, which is why I think it has two competing pronunciations.

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My guess would be that the final syllable was emphasized in the Greek as noted from its entry in NOAD.

ORIGIN late Middle English : via Latin from Greek huperbolē

So the bole would be more of a bolé than bowl

For what it's worth, it's composed of huper meaning over and ballō meaning to throw

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protected by RegDwigнt Jun 17 '14 at 18:49

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