I'm talking about a specific usage of language where the deceit is passive and consistent - an arguer might use an exaggerated word, or a word entirely incorrectly, to alter an audience's reception to an argument, but without actively maintaining the deceit of argument. Importantly, a person employing this technique is knowingly and intentionally being deceitful - it is not just a difference of opinion.

It is perhaps much easier to explain via example:

Arguer A: "We should no longer associate with Person C, as they screamed at us over this simple misunderstanding."

Arguer B: "Person C did not scream at us. I was present, and Person C only slightly raised their voice."

Arguer A: "That is just how I define the word 'screaming.' We don't need to associate with someone who will subject us to screaming conniptions over simple misunderstandings."

In a way, I am almost thinking of a dysphemism - in this case the word choice is used to intentionally increase the emotional impact of the word, even though it is understood to be a lie. If the use of exaggeration to alter the truth is confronted, the arguer might openly admit to the exaggeration, but then continue to use the exaggeration anyway because it will give the audience a certain emotional impression regardless of the deceit being laid bare.

A more insidious example might be:

Arguer A: "Person C is a felon, and can not be trusted to interact safely with the public if we employ them."

Arguer B: "Person C was convicted of possession of cannabis, and has no history of violent crimes."

Arguer A: "You're right, but person C is still a felon, and you can't trust felon criminals to respect people's safety."

Here the word "felon" is not an exaggeration, but is still being used deceptively to give listeners a certain impression about Person C, even though the arguer admits to the deception. By continuing to use the word, the truth of the matter is dulled by the emotional response the word inspires.

3 Answers 3


Welcome to ELU, Zack. Your question spreads across a number of fields about which we have to be clear: language use, rhetoric and logical argument.

The technical term for the rhetorical use of exaggeration is hyperbole. Actually, this is only the Greek term for exaggeration, which is derived from Latin". It just happens that the use of hyperbole is (or can be) very effective on the emotions of an audience. You could say a hyperbolic use is metaphorical, though strictly that is not quite so. Nevertheless, the meaning intention of an hyberbole, like your example of the word scream is one in which the meaning intention of Arguer A is not to claim that the person literally screamed. If that had been the intention, then your example would not count as an example. Arguer B would simply be right: Arguer A would simply not be telling the truth.

However, Even here, it is possible that what we have is a simple difference of subjective perception: what one person takes as forceful argument may be received as screaming - indeed this is a common feature of domestic quarrels!.

Your second case is a bit different. Here there is no hyperbole. It is a misuse of reasoning. It is almost a case of the logical fallacy known as illicit conversion. And example would be:

  • All criminals come from poor families.
  • Fred comes from a poor family.
  • Therefore Fred is a criminal.

This is a fallacy that many a politician exploits. But the false nature of it is obvious:

  • All As is Bs and
  • Fred is an A entails that
  • Fred is a B - not the other way around (hence the term illicit conversion)

So there are two different types of fallacy going on here. What would link them to rhetoric would be the intention to deceive an audience.

The sort of phenomena are hard to define as a single class of language use or rhetoric. Think of photographs. We can take a picture and most people to enhance and modify the picture to some degree. You can enhance the colour and light and shade. You can darken the lighting in a picture of a political opponent and enhance lines on her face or shadow round his jaw. Or you can highlight the visual strengths of your favourite politician. Are these visual deception, or just visual 'hyperbole', highlighting how you feel and how, therefore, everyone else should feel. When does it move from that to deception? It's a widish grey area.

Similarly, the use even of illicit conversion covers its own grey area.

At some point, hyperbole (and its opposite, litotes) may cross the threshold into outright deception. One such case was the calling of a failure by a senior UK government officer to acknowledge a statement of the full truth in a story some year ago involving an intervention by the UK Crown in the governance of Australia some years ago as "an economical use of the truth" was a compromise between admitting that the person in question had been dishonest and denying that anything untoward had happened.

You could try to coin the term dysphemism. It's clever. But it would be covering a much too wide a range of utterances than euphemism. Indeed, it would render my example a case of both euphemism and dysphemism at the same time. So they would make very odd antonyms,

  • I see now that my question is more complicated than I thought at first, but you've done a good job at outlining how it is so. I should perhaps have made more clear and placed emphasis on the concept that the two arguing positions in these scenarios are not necessarily trying to convince each other, but rather are broadcasting to an audience that they want to convince. In this way, the misuse of the words is done knowingly, with the intention to sway an audience's emotions to an argument.
    – Zach F.
    Sep 6, 2020 at 0:01

Words that come to mind are casuistry, chicanery, sophistry and speciousness. Of these I think speciousness fits best. The others can be related aspects of being specious.

speciousness is the quality of seeming to be right or true, but really wrong or false.


  • I don't think speciousness applies as I have never understood it to be used as "openly" deceptive. I would be rather shocked to learn of any instructor advising speakers in the use of speciousness as a rhetorical tool they should employ rather than a defective element they should catch out. Sep 5, 2020 at 23:32
  • As a rhetorical tool I agree it is not acceptable. As a manipulative device used within the given examples it is the best I can think of. The question is deep and difficult and I doubt that a perfect word match exists.
    – Anton
    Sep 6, 2020 at 7:08

My reply is intended in good spirit and uses an odd counter-example for clarity, not as any personal criticism or challenge. (I'm really new here too, though I first signed up a long time ago [smile].)

The first example in the question needs no more description than deception and such usage should not be encouraged by coddling it as rhetorical flourish.

My reasoning is based on the increasing incidence of people making patently false statements and excusing themselves by the simple expedience of "That is just how I define the word."

Language is not open to any lone individual simply creating their own definitions of words, despite the proclivity of Merriam-Webster online to legitimize any variants in the wild, primarily to demonstrate how very modern they can be.

To easily understand my issue with the example, how would it differ from one saying, "She murdered four people in Trent" and she replies, "I never murdered anyone, I merely met four people for a planning session." Which under example 1's authority can be repaired simply by declaring, "That is just the way I define the word."

Having admitted the deceit one is now free to continue to accuse her of murder throughout the remaining debate.

As grating as my example might seem, it is not very far from the reality of a lot of political discourse these days. Which is not healthy for the language, let alone the body politic.

I do not believe that deception qualifies as hyperbole, though I acknowledge the merit of the point raised regarding differing people receiving differing inputs. Completely valid for something like "screaming," I fear it is too particular to support a general application of a rule on rhetorical deceit. Most dishonesty is just dishonesty and not a matter of variable experience.

Again to clarify my meaning, in the case of screaming, if the reality is a genuine difference in how each person experiences screaming, it would not be a matter of "That is just how I define the word."

Rather it would be closer to, "Well it certainly felt like screaming to me."

Which context goes back to the observation flagged about many domestic disputes being sourced in differing experiences of what it is to be "screamed at."

Even if it could be agreed that usage of something like "screamed" might be made to fit the notion of deceptive hyperbole, it remains too narrow to be of much use because it still will not cover the majority of possible rhetorical deceptions. Hyperbole is a well-worn tool that does not require deception, though it too must be employed judiciously lest it cross over into that darker demeanor.

So my conclusion remains my preface: it is best not to encourage deception at all, and so to reply, "No, there is no such thing."

Note: I do not deal with the second example because it is not deceptive, and it concerns a matter susceptible to rational dispute. One may argue that a conviction for possession does not disqualify a person as being "safe" but it is not arbitrary or deceptive to take the opposite view, making a case, for example that willfully breaking the law is dispositive, regardless the popularity or perceived virtues of the law. The person who broke the law simply has to bear the burden of addressing their factual record, not one of responding to some hyperbolic deception.

  • I did not convey well enough in the first example that Arguer A is knowingly deceiving - Arguer A does not personally believe in the exaggeration either, but uses the deception anyway under the guise of a personal interpretation. Your comments on the second example point out that my example was flawed: in this case, I wanted to illustrate an example of one position using a word in an exaggerated way while not actually making verifiably false claims. A case where a "misleading truth" is repeated even after it has been cleared up because the emotional impact remains for an audience.
    – Zach F.
    Sep 6, 2020 at 0:16
  • I understood you intended that A is intentionally dishonest. My point is that trying to dress up that dishonesty as a rhetorical flourish is itself dishonest. It pretends that such usage is acceptable -- so acceptable that a special name is sought to characterize it. The names we have, deception or dishonesty, are sufficient as they fully capture the activity. To suggest that once a liar admits her lie it is justifiable to continue to repeat the lie purely to achieve an emotional impact is wrong. It's repeated because the admission is lost in the flow, the lie sticks even just a little. Sep 6, 2020 at 0:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.