In this post, I’d like to share examples of both exaggeration and understatement, used for comic effect. I consider the following Mencken generalization to be a thing of beauty in both simplicity and scope:
Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. (from “Holy Writ” by H. L. Mencken)
As a city reporter, James Thurber was criticized for being too wordy. In response, he filed the following story about a homicide:
Dead. That’s what the man was when they found him. (James Thurber)
Here is an example that combines both exaggeration and understatement in the same passage:
Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty. (from The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology by P.G. Wodehouse)
Charles Portis has a cult following and I’m one of those followers. Someone once referred to the author’s fans as “Portisheads.” If you’ve never read Portis, you might want to try his novels. One reviewer said Portis creates “Some of the funniest writing ever produced anywhere.” I agree.
He was an authority on history and literature and boasted of having solved mysteries in these fields that had baffled the greatest scholars of Europe. Through Golvscuvian analysis he had been able to make positive identification of the Third Murderer in Macbeth and of the Fourth Man in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. He had found the Lost Word of Freemasonry and had uttered it more than once, into the air, the Incommunicable Word of the Cabalists, the Verbum Ineffabile. The enigmatic quatrains of Nostradamus were an open book to him. He had a pretty good idea of what the Oracle of Ammon had told Alexander. (from Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis)