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I was having a conversation with a friend today. He jokingly asked me to help him pick up a desktop printer later (he's obviously strong enough to carry one on his own - a typical desktop printer is usually quite light for a man of average size).

I asked him, also jokingly, how heavy the printer is (so much that it requires two people to carry). He replied (in his exact words):

Have you ever seen an adult elephant? Well, it is not quite as heavy as that.

What sort of literary device did he use in the last part of this conversation? Hyberbole? If yes, what sort of hyperbole?

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Yes, your friend used hyperbole:

Hyperbole, derived from a Greek word meaning “over-casting” is a figure of speech, which involves an exaggeration of ideas for the sake of emphasis. It is a device that we employ in our day-to-day speech. ...[H]yperbole is an unreal exaggeration to emphasize the real situation. Examples:

  • Your suitcase weighs a ton!
  • She is as heavy as an elephant!
  • I am dying of shame.

Poets use hyperbole as well, as in this passage from Romeo and Juliet:

The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

There is a type of hyperbole called auxesis, meaning growth, increase:

a form of hyperbole that intentionally overstates something or implies that it is greater in significance or size than it really is.

The "growth/increase comes in with serial exaggerations:

Arranging words or clauses in a sequence of increasing force. In this sense, auxesis is comparable to climax and has sometimes been called incrementum.[2]

A familiar example is the statement at the beginning of The Adventures of Superman:

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird... it's a plane... it's Superman!"

Each element builds up to greater and greater significance.

Your friend starts by asked you to help him pick up a desktop printer (mild hyperbole). You asked him if two men were needed (you payed a part in this) to which his answer was at least an implied positive. Th then said, Have you ever seen an adult elephant? Well, it (the printer) is not quite as heavy as that.

Auxesis is used in humor as well as in serial exaggeration and poetry.

I think this might be the type of hyperbole used here.

[1] Literary Devices
[2] Silva Rhetoricae

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    Suggesting that OP's rather weak joke is in the same arena as the literary genius of Siegel & Shuster ...! Sep 11, 2014 at 6:42
  • Here's a challenge .. "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't"
    – Fattie
    Sep 11, 2014 at 14:39
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This type of ironic understatement is known as litotes.

Google defines litotes as:

Ironical understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary (e.g., you won't be sorry, meaning you'll be glad ).

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I'd say sarcasm but if I had to use a more embellished term then I'd opt for: ironic simile.

The friend is comparing the weight of the printer to that of an elephant, which is a simile. Then he makes an understatement about how much less the printer weighs compared to an elephant.

Well, it is not quite as heavy as that

We know perfectly well that a printer's weight compared to an elephant is totally insignificant, and it is that understatement which amuses us.

Similes are often introduced by like or as. One humorous example of a simile is from the film Shrek 2001

Shrek: Ogres are like onions.
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes. No!
Donkey: They make you cry?
Shrek: No!
Donkey: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting little white hairs.
Shrek: No! Layers! Onions have layers!

Simile and sarcasm as defined by literary devices

A simile is a figure of speech that makes a comparison, showing similarities between two different things. Unlike a metaphor, a simile draws resemblance with the help of the words “like” or “as”. Therefore, it is a direct comparison

Sarcasm Sarcasm is a literary and rhetorical device that is meant to mock with often satirical or ironic remarks with a purpose to amuse and hurt someone or some section of society simultaneously.

EDIT

I think the rhetorical term which fits the OP's request can be summed up as verbal irony.

Wikipedia explains

Verbal, dramatic, and situational irony are [is] often used for emphasis in the assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile, used in sarcasm, and some forms of litotes can emphasize one's meaning by the deliberate use of language which states the opposite of the truth, denies the contrary of the truth, or drastically and obviously understates a factual connection.

The article further claims that ironic similes are often employed to express their opposite meaning. Consequently in the OP's conversation, the weight of a printer is being compared to that of an elephant inasmuch as both are extremely heavy, we realize the absurdity of this claim and thus we arrive at it's opposite meaning. Examples of ironic similes suggested by Wikipedia are the following:

  • as soft as concrete
  • as clear as mud
  • as pleasant as a root canal
  • "as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake"
    (Kurt Vonnegut from Breakfast of Champions)
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  • The simile is spot on, but I have to disagree on the understatement. Adult elephants are between 2 and 7 tons. A free-standing multifunction printer/copier/scanner/fax machine is merely hundreds of pounds. The comparison is clearly overstating the weight of the printer. Verbal irony is a much closer term.
    – Patrick M
    Sep 11, 2014 at 16:11
  • But @PatrickM if you agree that comparing an elephant's weight with a printer is a simile, then how would you describe the weight ratio between them? I think the punchline it's not quite as heavy is a gross understatement, almost a hyperbole in reverse if you like. What do you think?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 11, 2014 at 16:41
  • I think this is a case of syntax vs. semantics. Syntactically, the comparison is an understatement of the weight difference. Semantically, the meaning you are supposed to draw from the comparison, is an overstatement of the weight of the printer. I would classify it this way because the original question was 'How heavy is this?', not 'How much less than an adult elephant does this weigh?'
    – Patrick M
    Sep 11, 2014 at 17:46
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Sounds like understatement

the act or an instance of stating something in restrained terms, or as less than it is [Collins]

The formal name is meiosis

a euphemistic figure of speech that intentionally understates something or implies that it is lesser in significance or size than it really is [Wikipedia]

Because it employs a negative, it might be considered litotes

understatement is employed for rhetoric effect, principally via double negatives. For example, rather than saying that something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is "not unattractive". [Wikipedia]

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    If you call it an understatement you imply that the printer actually does weigh more than a grown elephant. I admittedly know little about elephants, and I am no expert on printers, but I do find it hard to believe. Even the massive IBM-constructs I used to work with didn't seem to come close to the 7000 kilos that an African elephant bull can reach. On the other hand, a litotes for a heavy printer would have been “it's not exactly light as a feather”. A litotes employs the opposite of what is meant. It would imply that an elephant is used as an example of something light.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 11, 2014 at 6:52
  • @oerkelens. it is understatement. Not quite as heavy is minimization of the real weight difference. It is much less heavy.
    – bib
    Sep 11, 2014 at 11:34
  • How is that an understatement? Much less heavy than a 7 tonne elephant, let's say 200 kilos. That is still a lot more than a printer. Also, not quite can also mean "almost, but just short of", which is the way I read the sentence, because otherwise it makes no sense. You call it an understatement if I say that the trip to my office is not quite as far as the distance to Alpha Centauri? The use of something overly, outrageously larger in scale compared to the object at hand can hardly be an understatement.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 11, 2014 at 11:41
  • minimization of the real weight difference -> then it is just a bit less heavy. If the difference is minimized, the printer must indeed weigh near 7 tonnes. It is the weight that is commented on, not the difference in weight... If I say "she weighs almost as much as an elephant", that is an understatement because I minimize the difference in weight? Honestly, if I tell a woman she ways almost as much as an elephant, I may get slapped in the face. But I you add that that is an understatement, you'll fare much worse! :P
    – oerkelens
    Sep 11, 2014 at 11:43
  • @bib, I agree with oerkelens. The humor and the point of the comparison is from overstating the weight of the printer, not understating the weight difference.
    – Patrick M
    Sep 11, 2014 at 16:13
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Summing up all those answers and comments: it's clearly an inverted hyperbolic simile.

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