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?


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'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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    In World War 2, the Royal Navy had two warships named Penelope and Antelope. The sailors, of course, called them Pennyloap and Antelypee. – TimLymington Nov 3 '15 at 11:43
  • When I was little (probably about eight) I asked my father a question about isotopes pronouncing it "isotopies". He was amused. – Colin Fine Nov 22 '17 at 15:47

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

  • The final syllable was long, which isn't exactly the same thing as "emphasized." The stress in Greek actually did happen to fall on the last syllable, but Latin pronunciation always ignores the original stress of Greek words, so in Latin the stress was on the third-to-last syllable. (This Latin stress is the one that was inherited in English.) However, the vowel length was preserved in Latin. – sumelic Dec 27 '15 at 3:22

protected by RegDwigнt Jun 17 '14 at 18:49

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