What is Chiasmus?

It's not necessary to read any of what follows to savor the many chiastic quotes that appear on this site. However, by continuing on for a few moments in this section, you'll deepen your understanding of chiasmus and heighten your appreciation of chiastic quotations. If you're a bona fide word, language, and quotation lover, I think you'll find what you're about to read fascinating.

The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the world's greatest dictionary, defines chiasmus as:

"A grammatical figure by which the order of words in one of two of parallel clauses is inverted in the other."

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick provides a more extensive description:

chiasmus [ky-AZ-mus] (plural -mi), a figure of speech by which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second. This may involve a repetition of the same words ("Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure" —Byron) or just a reversed parallel between two corresponding pairs of ideas … . The figure is especially common in 18th century English poetry, but is also found in prose of all periods. It is named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a "criss-cross" arrangement of terms. Adjective: chiastic.

As you can see, the proper adjective is chiastic and not "chiasmic" or "chiasmatic," as I've heard some say. Technically, the plural is chiasmi, (as with hippopotamus). However, saying chiasmi can come across as pretentious, so you'll want to do that rarely.

According to the OED, chiasmus made its first published appearance in English in 1871 when a British scholar named A. S. Wilkins wrote about an observation from Cicero:

"This is a good instance of the … figure called chiasmus … in which the order of words in the first clause is inverted in the second."

The word goes back to the ancient Greeks and their fascination with language and rhetoric. The "chi" comes from chi, the letter "X" in the Greek alphabet. The word itself comes from the Greek word khiasmos, meaning "crossing." Khiasmos, in turn, is derived from the Greek word khiazein, meaning "to mark with an X."

"To Mark With an X"

One of the most fascinating features of chiasmus is this "marking with an X" notion. Take Mae West's signature line, "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men." By laying out the two clauses parallel to each other, it's possible to draw two lines connecting the key words:

“It's not the men in my life
X
it's the life in my men.”

The lines intersect, creating an "X." This quote, and all the chiastic quotations you've seen so far on this site, can be "marked with an X." Here are two more examples:

“Home is where the great are small
X
and the small are great.”
“One should eat to live
X
not live to eat.”

If you're ever wondering whether a particular quote is chiastic, simply lay it out in this manner. If you can mark it with an X, it is. If you can't, it probably isn't.

The ABBA Method

One other interesting way to view chiastic quotes is the ABBA method. Let's go back to the Mae West quote. If you assign the letters A and B to the first appearance of the key words and A' and B' (read "A prime" and "B prime") to their second appearance, they follow what is referred to as an ABBA pattern:

A   It's not the men
  B   in my life
  B'   it's the life
A'   in my men

Here's how the other two quotes would be laid out:

A   Home is where the great
  B   are small and
  B'   the small
A'   are great

A    One should eat to
  B   live, not
  B'   live
A'   to eat

Chiasmus can be achieved by reversing more than two key words. This observation from the 18th century English writer, Charles Caleb Colton, is a good example:

“How strange it is that we of the present day are constantly praising
that past age which our fathers abused,
and as constantly abusing that present age,
which our children will praise.”

Laid out schematically, it looks like this:

A   How strange it is that we of the present day are constantly praising
  B   that past age
    C     which our fathers abused,
    C'     and as constantly abusing
  B'   that present age,
A'   which our children will praise

Another good example comes from Genesis 9:6:

A  Whoever sheds
  B   the blood
    C     of man
    C'     by man shall
  B'   his blood
A'   be shed

Technically, it doesn't make any difference how many words are reversed. Some scholars believe that a chiastic structure can be found in much larger passages, including entire sections of the New Testament and other ancient sacred writings. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here, I just wanted to show you how the order of words—any number of words—in the first part of an expression can be reversed in the second.

Reversing More Than Just Words

Chiasmus doesn't just involve the reversal of single words, as you've seen in the quotations so far. Chiasmus can also be achieved by reversing complete phrases, individual letters of words, sounds of words, and occasionally even numbers. Let's examine each of these chiastic variations.

Phrase Reversal.  Below are two quotes in which phrases rather than single words are reversed (I'll highlight the key elements being reversed to make them more apparent):

“Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it,
even when you have no desire to be with each other.
Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other,
even when you have no desire to do it.”

Judith Viorst
“Some have an idea that the reason we in this country
discard things so readily is because we have so much.
The facts are exactly opposite—the reason
we have so much is simply because we discard things so readily.”

Alfred P. Sloan

Letter Reversal.  Chiasmus can also be achieved by reversing the individual letters of words, as in this anonymous saying, which I recall hearing decades ago:

“A magician is a person who pulls rabbits out of hats.
An experimental psychologist is a person who pulls habits out of rats.”

Without question, though, the most impressive example of chiasmus by letter reversal comes from a poem called "Sylvan Spring" by Alfred Kohn. I haven't yet received formal permission to reprint the poem, but it includes seven distinct letter reversals, including these:

"soggy grounds" gets transposed to "groggy sounds"
"a doe and fawn" hide from "their foe at dawn."
on a "dreary lake" is found a "leery drake"
robins gathering "reed for nest" later have a "need for rest"

I'm trying to get permission to reprint this chiastic tour de force, which I originally found in Willard Espy's 1989 book, The Word's Gotten Out. I wanted to include the poem in my Never Let a Fool Kiss You book, but the publisher of Espy's book—Clarkson N. Potter—wanted to charge me a hundred and fifty bucks to reprint the poem (of course, I passed!). I'm trying again, hoping I can convince them to let me bring long-overdue acclaim to a fabulous poem. (By the way, I've also been unsuccessful in tracking down the author of the poem. If you can help me locate the mysterious Alfred Kohn, I'd be grateful.).

Sound Reversal.  Because it allows for the reversal of sounds, chiasmus has a special appeal to wordsmiths and others interested in the playful use of language:

“I find Paul appealing
and Peale appalling.”

Adlai Stevenson
“I'd rather have a bottle in front of me
Than a frontal lobotomy.”

Randy Hanzlick, title of song

And while we're on the subject of sounds, chiasmus especially lends itself to the reversal of homonyms:

“Why do we drive on a parkway
and park on a driveway?”

Richard Lederer
“Here's champagne for our real friends
and real pain for our sham friends.”

Edwardian Toast

During my research, I discovered that the opening line of Coleridge's poem Xanadu—one of the most famous lines in the history of poetry—is an example of phonetic chiasmus. In the Collier's Encyclopedia entry on chiasmus, "In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan" is described as an example of chiasmus. I didn't see it at first, and wouldn't be surprised if you don't either. But as soon as I sounded it out, it became apparent. Let me lay it out schematically—and phonetically—for you:

“In Xan-a-du
X
did Ku-bla-Khan
“In Zann-uh-doo
X
did Koo-bluh-Kann

Number Reversal.  Finally, chiasmus can achieve delightful results by simply reversing numbers:

“A lawyer starts life giving $500 worth of law for $5
and ends giving $5 worth for $500.”

Benjamin H. Brewster
“Errol Flynn died on a 70-foot boat with a 17-year-old girl.
Walter has always wanted to go that way,
but he's going to settle for a 17-footer with a 70-year-old.”

Betsy Maxwell Cronkite, wife of Walter Cronkite

Okay, let's review. Chiasmus—a reversal in the order of words in otherwise parallel expressions—can also be achieved by reversing phrases, letters of words, sounds, and numbers. There's one other fascinating variation on the chiastic theme. Let's take a look at it now.

From Chiastic Quotations to Chiastic Dialogue

So far, you've seen how chiasmus shows up in single quotations. But chiasmus can also occur in interpersonal communication. It happens when one person reverses the words of another. A good example comes from a story told about Chauncey Depew, a 19th century railroad executive who served for a time as a U. S. Senator. Depew was a gifted orator who gained national prominence as an after-dinner speaker. On one occasion, the local chairperson of a group introduced Depew by saying:

“Chauncey Depew can always produce a speech. All you have to do is give him his dinner, and up comes his speech.”

Depew got up from his seat, walked to the podium, and wowed the audience by saying:

Chauncey Depew

“I only hope that it isn't true that if I give you my speech, up will come your dinner.”

Depew's reply demonstrates the essence of a chiastic come-back: it literally reverses the words of a preceding speaker. If the topic of chiastic dialogue interests you, you may want to take a look at the chapter on "Chiastic Repartee" in Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. You can also find a more extended discussion of the topic in Types of Chiasmus.

Chiasmus: A Figure of Speech and a Rhetorical Device

Many dictionaries and encyclopedias refer to chiasmus as a figure of speech and describe it as an example of figurative language. But what exactly is a figure of speech? And what does it mean to use figurative language?

Figurative language is language that is deliberately different from the way people normally speak or write. An individual figure of speech—and there are dozens of them—is any particular method people use to express themselves figuratively. Some figures, like metaphors or similes, are so common they don't appear to depart much from standard usage; in fact, unless grandly phrased, they don't necessarily stand out. But others, like alliteration and oxymoron, generally do stand out. And, of course, so does chiasmus.

Figurative language is an important part of what brings richness and beauty to poetry, writing, and oratory. When Lord Byron wrote, "Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure" he wasn't trying to write the way people normally speak. He was consciously using chiasmus to craft a line that was rhythmic, evocative, and memorable.

John F. Kennedy did the same with his immortal line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." People don't generally talk this way in everyday conversation. But an inaugural address to an entire nation was the perfect occasion for figurative language—and Kennedy took full advantage of it. The Kennedy quote demonstrates something else about chiasmus. Because it can be such a powerful oratorical tool, it is frequently referred to as a "rhetorical device."

But chiasmus is much more than a mere figure of speech or rhetorical device. In fact, I believe there's something almost archetypal about it. Let me explain.

A Vehicle For Expressing Great Truths

Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, was fond of talking about a treasured piece of wisdom he learned from his father. According to Bohr, his father said:

Niels Bohr
“There are trivial truths and great truths.
The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false.
The opposite of a great truth is also true.”

I believe this insight helps to explain why chiasmus holds such deep interest for many people. When you look at the two components of many chiastic observations, both assertions seem true. Take the French proverb:

“Love makes time pass,
time makes love pass.”

The first line contains what all people would regard as a great romantic truth. When people are deeply in love, time flies by. The second line describes a less romantic but equally compelling "truth." As time goes by, the ardor of love—and frequently even love itself—fades away. It's a perfect example of what Bohr's father was talking about.

The same could be said about many other chiastic observations:

“Charm is a woman's strength …
strength is a man's charm.”

Havelock Ellis
“When they are alone they want to be with others, and
when they are with others they want to be alone.
After all, human beings are like that.”

Gertrude Stein
“The instinct of a man is
to pursue everything that flies from him, and
to fly from all that pursue him.”

Voltaire

As is the case with so many chiastic quotes, the second part of each expression complements the first in a memorable and thought-provoking way. And, in each case, both thoughts seem equally true.

This kind of thing happens again and again with chiasmus. In his 1966 book Papa Hemingway, A. E. Hotchner credits Ernest Hemingway with saying:

“Man can be destroyed but not defeated.
Man can be defeated but not destroyed.”

When you stop to think about it, the saying captures two tragic realities. Throughout history, many courageous people have chosen to die at the hands of conquerors, tyrants, and persecutors rather than give up deeply-held beliefs. And, throughout history, even larger numbers of people have abandoned their beliefs so they wouldn't die at the hands of conquerors, tyrants, and persecutors. This sentiment is yet another example of this intriguing phenomenon: by reversing a profound truth, you create a statement that is equally true.

Here's one more example. An Italian proverb says:

“In man, mortal sins are venial;
in woman, venial sins are mortal.”

There's never been a more profound statement of "the Double Standard," and the age-old tendency for men to trivialize their major sins and women to magnify their minor ones. The proverb says it all about how men and women judge themselves.

The kind of thing I've been describing here doesn't happen all the time with chiasmus. But it happens often enough that chiasmus must be regarded as more than just a figure of speech or rhetorical device. Sometimes, it may be seen as a method for communicating great truths, and doing so in very few words.

Chiasmus and Related Terms

Let me bring this discussion of chiasmus to an end by briefly describing a few other literary terms—often called "figures of repetition" by scholars—that are related to chiasmus. You may be familiar with some of them, others not, some are even more obscure than chiasmus. But knowing these terms will enhance your understanding and appreciation of chiasmus.

Inverted Parallelism.  A popular synonym of chiasmus is "inverted parallelism." To understand it, you must first understand what parallelism means. The distinction between the two became clear to me early in my research, when I happened on a wonderful line from Robert Frost:

“Love is the irresistible desire
to be irresistibly desired.”

Technically, this is an example of parallelism, a literary device where the same or similar phrases are repeated in successive clauses. In Frost's quote, "irresistible desire" shows up again as "irresistibly desired." There's a repetition, but no inversion.

As I looked at Frost's observation, it occurred to me that a slight modification could turn it into a nifty little example of chiasmus. So I modified it:

“Love is the irresistible desire
to be desired irresistibly.”

In this version, there's both repetition and inversion, which makes it chiastic. As I examined my edited version, I felt proud of my efforts. Examining it, I actually preferred it to the original. I even got a little cocky, thinking, "I wonder why Frost didn't lay out the original thought in chiastic form?"

My bubble was burst a few months later when I discovered that somebody else beat me to the punch. At a 1968 poetry reading in New York City, the father of beat poet Allen Ginsberg—a New Jersey high school teacher and part-time poet named Louis Ginsberg—offered the identical chiastic version I had come up with to the folks in his audience. I'm sure he was inspired by the Frost quote, just as I was. I was initially disappointed, but that feeling was short-lived as I came to appreciate why chiasmus is often referred to as "inverted parallelism."

Sometimes, the elements of a parallel expression are set in sharp opposition to each other. When this happens, parallelism can also become an example of antithesis.

Antithesis.  While it commonly means "in direct contrast or opposition," antithesis is another popular figure of speech and rhetorical device. In antithesis, there is a juxtaposition of contradictory or strongly contrasted ideas. Antithesis is sometimes even called "antithetical parallelism."

Most examples of antithesis are not chiastic:

“Charm strikes the sight,
but merit wins the soul.”

Alexander Pope
“A wise son makes a glad father,
but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.”

Proverbs 10:1

But many are:

“You can give without loving,
but you cannot love without giving.”

Amy Carmichael
“In peace sons bury their fathers,
but in war fathers bury their sons.”

Croesus (6th century B.C.)

In the 18th and 19th century, many writers used the expression antithesis to describe what we would now refer to as chiasmus. However, the two terms are not synonymous, even though they often share the qualities of repetition and contrast. Most examples of antithesis don't contain the reversal of words or ideas that is the distinguishing feature of chiasmus. When they do, it is more accurate to describe them as examples of chiasmus, as opposed to the more general term, antithesis.

Antimetabole.  Another synonym of chiasmus is the tongue-twisting word, antimetabole (pronounced AN-tie-muh-TAB-oh-lee). The Oxford English Dictionary defines antimetabole as, "A figure in which the same words or ideas are repeated in inverse order." The word comes from a Greek word meaning, "to turn about in the opposite direction." While the word first appeared in English writings in the 1600's, it is now used rarely (and when it is, generally by classical scholars or students of rhetoric).

While antithesis is more general than chiasmus, antimetabole is more restrictive. In antimetabole, "the same words or ideas" must be repeated in reverse order. That's why these are examples of antimetabole:

“All for one, and one for all.”
“Eat to live, not live to eat.”

And these aren't:

“Here's champagne for our real friends
and real pain for our sham friends.”
“I'd rather have a bottle in front of me
than a frontal lobotomy.”
Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature

But all are examples of chiasmus. In fact, one could say that all examples of antimetabole are chiastic, but not all examples of chiasmus are antimetabolic. Quite appropriately, Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature describes antimetabole as "A type of chiasmus."

Antimetabole and its adjective, antimetabolic, are words that don't exactly roll off the tongue. For this reason alone, I can't imagine them ever catching on. And they really don't have to, since the slightly broader umbrella of chiasmus is able to include all examples of antimetabole under it. I prefer chiasmus—and chiastic—because they're easier to say and sound a whole lot better when people use them in speech.

Antistrophe.  Another word that probably won't catch on—for the same reason we just discussed— is the next synonym of chiasmus: antistrophe. When used in rhetoric and grammar, antistrophe (pronounced ann-TIS-tro-fee) is defined by the OED as "the repetition of words in inverse order." The word appeared in English for the first time in 1625, and may be traced to a Greek word meaning, "a turning about." In 1728, Chamber's influential Cyclopedia included this entry:

"Antistrophe is a figure in grammar, whereby two terms or things, mutually dependent upon one another, are reciprocally converted. As if one should say, the master of the servant, and the servant of the master."

While the example cited by Chambers is clearly chiastic, the word antistrophe never took hold, even with scholars, because the word means something else in another setting. In Greek lyrical drama, antistrophe refers to the second part of the drama, in which the chorus reverses the movement of the first part (called the strophe).

The New Language of Politics

Contrapuntal Phrases.  In his book, The New Language of Politics, political speech writer and language maven William Safire included an entry on "contrapuntal phrases," which he defined this way:

"A phrase-making technique that uses a repeated rhythm with an inversion or substitution of words for emphasis."

According to Safire, "Good speechwriters reach for contrapuntal phrases" in their efforts, adding that John F. Kennedy used the device more than any other president. Some of the contrapuntal phrases Safire cites are not chiastic—but are good examples of parallelism—like JFK's:

“While we shall negotiate freely,
we shall not negotiate freedom.”

And some are clearly chiastic, like JFK's famous "Ask not what your country can do for you" line. While a good effort, Safire's expression didn't catch on. He first introduced it in 1968 and so far he's the only person I've seen use it. If there had been a void, Safire's expression might have filled it. But, as you've seen, there are a number of expressions that describe phrases in which there is a reversal of word order, the best of which is chiasmus.

In this section, we've taken a closer look at the word chiasmus and the phenomenon it describes. Considering what you knew when you first got here, you've actually become quite knowledgeable on the subject. You know the etymology of the word, and understand why all chiastic quotations can be "marked with an X." You realize that chiasmus can show up in interpersonal dialogue as well as in single quotations. You've learned that chiasmus is not only a fascinating figure of speech and rhetorical device, but also a marvelous method for communicating some of life's great truths. And, finally, you've been exposed to some synonyms of chiasmus and other related terms. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact Dr. Mardy.

BOOKS BY DR. MARDY

Neverisms
Ifferisms
I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like
Viva la Repartee
Oxymoronica
Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You