I remember the first time I said it. My English teacher, Mr Martin, asked what a particular rhetorical effect was being employed by some dead white male or another and, having seen the word used in a book, 13-year-old me volunteered, “Is it hyperbowl?” and he said something along the lines of, “It’s a Greek word and it’s actually pronounced ‘hyperbole’ but yes, that’s right.” He didn’t poke fun at my wonky pronunciation, he didn’t crush my creative soul, he just put me right.
That was that for a long while. I barely heard the word for years (in most cases, “exaggeration” serves just as well) but when I did it was usually pronounced in the proper, Mr Martin-approved manner. In the past few years, however, I’ve heard “hyperbowl” creeping into the most unlikely places, not least that repository of educated English speech, BBC Radio 4. Things came to a head a couple of days ago when the government minister Nadhim Zahawi used it. I hesitated in responding, especially because Mr Zahawi presumably doesn’t have English as a first language, having come to Britain at the age of nine. But then I checked his Wikipedia page, calculated how much his parents must have spent on his private education once they got here, and did what Mr Martin would never have done. I pointed and I laughed. On Twitter.
It did make me wonder, though. When such solecisms occur these days, do people – those who taught young Nadhim at Ibstock Place and King’s College School, for example – not intervene because doing so would be seen as rude or snobbish or discriminatory? Or do most people think “hyperbowl” is right? In which case, in the normal order of the development of language, it actually is right, and Nadim Zahawi is right, and I’m wrong and so is Mr Martin. Which is an earth-shattering catastrophe.