Hyperbole Reaches New Heights

Some newspaper people remind me of Charles Dickens. They momentarily live in the best of times or the worst of times, as in the opening line of "A Tale of Two Cities."

While they work on the planet, they must be covering the first, the last, the biggest, the best, the worst, the smallest, the loudest, the dirtiest or the smelliest thing ever.


The subject today is hyperbole, or extravagant exaggeration. My own fingers have never typed such an odoriferous outrage, which is our second example today. The first was that Charles Dickens business.

I like hyperbole in some forms, as when Dan Rodricks writes about his gubernatorial comic opera figure Don Donaldo or when Kevin Cowherd loves plastic Christmas trees and compares traditional tree lovers to the Flat Earth Society.


Presidents like hyperbole. George Bush said Clarence Thomas was the best person in the land for the Supreme Court. Listeners who weren't angry or happy just winked.

Tired of thinking about gays, the military and the single best attorney general, President Clinton said, "I've been working almost exclusively on the economic issues of the country since I became president." Believe that, and it helps explains the early White House confusion on other matters.

Many play hyperbole. The New York Times editorializes, perhaps without studying the history, that Mr. Clinton's people "ran the worst transition in modern memory."

Sports writers often warn us when they reach for an hyperbole. Mike Davis, an editor here, collects cases of "arguably," as in "arguably the best player". What the writers mean is "I'm too tired to look it up" or "one of the best players" or "I'm not too sure about this" or "A lot of people may disagree with me."

Mike Shultz, a former metro editor and now in marketing and communications here, recalls hyperbolic headlines at the old Evening Sun. Its black double banners in the 1960s and 1970s turned federal arrests of Tangier Island duck hunters into a D-Day invasion or a Baltimore marijuana search into an Appalachia Cosa Nostra raid or the latest 2-inch snow into a new Blizzard of '88. Others recall recent hyperactive Sun heads.

It's better to shelve some hyperbole.

* When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in late summer 1992, The Sun referred to it Sept. 2 as "the worst natural disaster" in American history. It may have been, but only if you count just property loss, estimated then at $20 billion.

Andrew was a minor blip if you count people. Andrew killed about 31 persons by Sept. 2. A quick look in an encyclopedia shows that the Johnstown flood (1889) killed 2,200; the Galveston hurricane and flood (1900) had 500 dead; San Francisco earthquake (1906), 503 dead; The Long Island/New England Hurricane of 1938, 600 dead. And so on.


* When convicted killer Dontay Carter escaped Jan. 18, The Sun's Page 1A headline said "City's largest manhunt ends with Carter's arrest." Two city police employees were the source for the description of the 30-hour search involving 60 officers and others. The Sun recalled the 1964 search for the Veney brothers and described it as the largest until this January's search for Carter.

The 1964 Veney search, which ended in an out-of-state arrest, after the shooting of two city police officers (one fatally) was far bigger, according to Bill Talbott, a Sun police reporter for 40 years. "It went on for days," Mr. Talbott recalls. "Entire shifts of 60 men worked double and triple shifts, Baltimore and Anne Arundel county forces joined city police, many more police man-hours were spent, police broke down the doors of up to 300 homes."

* After Arthur Ashe died Feb. 13, The Sun said, "Richmond remembers its most famous native son." Other famous Richmond natives are writer Tom Wolfe, actor Warren Beatty, Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell and Governor Doug Wilder, and a famous native daughter, actress Shirley MacLaine, Mr. Beatty's sister. Mr. Ashe may or may not have been the most famous. He was famous enough.

Critics have more license. As a veteran music critic, The Sun's Steve Wigler is a local connoisseur. He writes that Leon Fleisher "is the most famous (and perhaps the most successful) piano teacher alive." . . . "No one in the music community seems to elicit more love than Sergiu Comissiona." . . . "There isn't another wind player who makes soft notes more magical" than flutist James Galway. . . . "No pianist alive" plays [certain parts] of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini "with greater assurance" than Horacio Gutierrez.

Then take Henny Youngman. It may or may not be hyperbole, but I'm leaving with his line: "I've got all the money I'll ever need if I die by 4 o'clock."

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.