Hyperbole and emotionalisation: Escalation of pragmatic effects of proverb and metaphor in the “Brexit” debate

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(How) Can the use of hyperbole in metaphorical idioms and scenarios contribute to an increase in emotionalisation of public debates? Using a research corpus of quotations from British politicians’ speeches and interviews and of press texts 2016-2020, this paper investigates hyperbolic formulations in Brexit-related applications of the proverb ‘You cannot have your cake and eat it’ and related scenarios of national liberation, which appear to have strongly boosted emotionalised public debates. For instance, Brexit proponents’ reversal of the cake proverb into the assertion, ‘We can have our cake and eat it’, and their figurative interpretation of Brexit as a war of liberation (against the EU) triggered highly emotional reactions: triumphant affirmation among followers, fear and resentment among opponents. The paper argues that the combination of figurative speech (proverb, metaphor) with hyperbole heightened the emotional and polemical impact of the pro-Brexit argument. Whilst this effect may be deemed to have been rhetorically successful in the short term (e.g. in referendum and election campaigns), its long-term effect on political discourse is more ambivalent, for it leads to a polarisation and radicalisation of political discourse in Britain (as evidenced, for instance, in the massive use of hyperbole in COVID-19 debates). The study of hyperbole as a means of emotionalisation thus seems most promising as part of a discourse-historical investigation of socio-pragmatic effects of figurative (mainly, metaphorical) language use, rather than as an isolated, one-off rhetorical phenomenon.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)628-644
Number of pages17
JournalRussian Journal of Linguistics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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