Types of Chiasmus

Even though all examples of chiasmus share the same distinctive structure—a reversal in word order that can be "marked with an X"—there are a number of interesting variations on the chiastic theme. We'll examine all of them here on "Types of Chiasmus."

If you come across a particularly good example, send it along. And if you have any thoughts or observations about the practice, please share them.

arrow Implied Chiasmus
arrow Double Chiasmus
arrow Phonetic Chiasmus
arrow Chiasmus by Letter Reversal
arrow Numerical Chiasmus
arrow Chiastic Shorthand
arrow Chiastic Questions
arrow Chiastic Definitions

Implied Chiasmus

In this edition, we take a look at one of the most interesting types, something I call Implied Chiasmus.

Look over the following familiar sayings:

“Time flies when you're having fun.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
“Some things have to be seen to be believed.”
“Only the good die young.”

Now look over the following quotes:

“Time's fun when you're having flies.”

Kermit the Frog
“Invention is the mother of necessity.”

Thorstein Veblen
“Some things have to be believed to be seen.”

Ralph Hodgson
“Only the young die good.”

Oliver Herford

Each quote reverses the words of the earlier expressions.

I've coined the term implied chiasmus for quotes like these because the original saying that is being reversed is only implied. In all examples of implied chiasmus, the words of a saying—generally a popular or well-known saying—are reversed, but without explicit reference to the saying being altered.

Reversing the words of familiar sayings has been a common practice over the centuries. To the best of my knowledge, though, there has never been an accepted word or phrase to describe the practice. I'm hoping that implied chiasmus will fill the void. To be honest, I'm even hoping the expression will eventually show up in dictionaries of literary terms and in discussions of the practice among academics and other literate people.

Many examples of implied chiasmus are extremely clever, like the Kermit the Frog quote earlier. Others are extremely thought-provoking, like Thorstein Veblen's observation. From one point of view, necessity is the mother of invention because so many inventions are based on attempts to solve important problems. But invention is also the mother of necessity, for countless inventions—like electricity, automobiles, and telephones—have a way of quickly becoming necessities.

The same is true with the Ralph Hodgson quote. The proverb he reverses is certainly true—some things are so incredible they must be seen to be believed. But his reversal is equally true—some things are so mysterious or shrouded in doubt they must be believed to be seen.

Some examples of implied chiasmus have become so popular they're part and parcel of the popular culture, like Mae West's signature line:

“A hard man is good to find.”

(reversing, “A good man is hard to find.”)

Or this popular definition of a hangover:

“A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

(reversing, The Grapes of Wrath)

Or this popular definition of a hangover:

Some are well-known in philosophical circles, like Robert G. Ingersoll's:

“An honest God is the noblest work of man.”

(reversing the Alexander Pope line,
“An honest man's the noblest work of God.”)

Half of the fun of implied chiasmus comes from appreciating the quote itself. The other half comes from figuring out the saying that is being reversed (sometimes it's immediately obvious, sometimes it takes a little effort). When the two experiences are combined, the result is pure intellectual pleasure.

Once expressed, implied chiasmus can seem pretty obvious. Sometimes I even find myself thinking, "Why didn't I think of that?" after seeing one for the first time. But then I usually remind myself, "If it was so obvious, why didn't you think of it first?"

It's not just familiar sayings that are reversed in implied chiasmus, but anything that writers want to set in contrast to their central message. A powerful example occurs in the 1915 poem, "The Golf Links," a stinging portrayal of the evils of child labor by American poet, Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn:

Child worker
“The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.”

Cleghorn was passionately devoted to social causes and wrote poems to express her rage at social injustice. What makes this poem so effective is not simply the alteration of a familiar saying, but the powerful reversal of what is—children working and men playing—with what should be—men working and children playing. It's the most powerful example of implied chiasmus I've found.

Many implied chiasmus play around with the theme of "reversing the natural order of things." A wonderful illustration comes from the English writer, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was so struck by the beauty of his future wife, Elizabeth Linley, that he said upon first meeting her:

Richard Sheridan
“Why don't you
come into my garden?
I would like my
roses to see you.”

This line—and a "line" it was, in both senses of the word—proved that Sheridan was a pretty smooth talker as well as an accomplished writer. By reversing the words of the expression "I'd like you to see my roses," Sheridan was telling Elizabeth that she was so beautiful that the normal rules about who admires what had to be reversed in her case.

Implied chiasmus is a favorite technique of humorists and satirists. A few years ago, the gang at Saturday Night Live did a spoof of that famous U.S. Navy commercial which ends with the tag line, "It's not just a job, it's an adventure." Shot on what looks like an aircraft carrier, the SNL parody features a sailor scrubbing floors, cleaning latrines, and performing other menial duties. At the end of the 30-second spot, the announcer's voice says:

“The U. S. Navy. It's not just an adventure, it's a job.”

In 1983, a naval captain named Barney Kelly grounded the USS Enterprise on a sandbar in San Francisco Bay. The grounding of the huge ship was the talk of the town, as people wondered how such a thing could have happened, given the highly trained personnel and their sophisticated equipment. While everyone was wondering how it could have happened, Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a clever San Franciscan named John Bracken described what had happened in a most unusual way. Of Captain Kelly, he said:

“He grounds the warship he walks on.”

Bracken threw in a neat little pun as he reversed the words of the saying about worshipping the ground someone walks on. A truly brilliant observation.

Another example of a pun combined with implied chiasmus comes from Ziggy, the character from cartoonist Tom Wilson, who reversed the slogan of the United Negro College Fund to express his philosophy about dieting and weight control:

“The waist is a terrible thing to mind.”

Some of the best examples of implied chiasmus come from the most unheralded wordsmiths in the world, the anonymous folks who write headlines and captions for newspapers and magazines. Two examples will make the point.

One of the most famous dates on the Boston sports calendar is the "Head of the Charles" regatta, an annual event that brings together some of the best rowing crews in the world. In 1995, an article in the Boston Globe featured one of the pre-race favorites. Reversing the words of the popular expression "The Head of the Class," the headline at the top of the article couldn't have said it better:

“The Class of the Head.”

As impressive as this headline is, the next one surpasses it. In the mid-1980s, Sports Illustrated ran an article that included a photograph of some official timers at a track meet. The caption said:

“These are the souls that time men's tries.”

An ingenious reversal of the saying, "These are the times that try men's souls."

Now that you're familiar with implied chiasmus, don't be surprised if you begin seeing examples of it everywhere. I've already found about a dozen book titles that employ the technique, including:

The Crime of Punishment

by Dr. Karl Menninger
(reversing what we normally think about, “The punishment of crime.”)
The Advocate's Devil

by Alan Dershowitz
(reversing, “The Devil's Advocate.”)
You'll See It When You Believe It

by Dr. Wayne Dyer
(reversing, “You'll believe it when you see it.”)

Reversing the words of familiar sayings has been a favorite practice of humorists and comedians over the years, as they turn things around to get a laugh. Mark Twain once offered this remark about a book by Henry James:

“Once you've put it down,
you simply can't pick it up.”

In the 1960s, comedian Ed Wynn spent some time directing and performing in plays on Mississippi Showboats. Reflecting on his experience, he once said:

“I bred my cast upon the waters.”

Some of the most famous comics in history have favored the device of implied chiasmus:

“Alimony. Bounty after the mutiny.”

Johnny Carson
“A broker is a man who runs your fortune into a shoestring.”

Henny Youngman
“Reality is a crutch for people who can't cope with drugs.”

Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner

It takes some people awhile to "get" the meaning of the last quote (and, to be honest, some people don't get it at all). It's a very creative reversal of the words of the familiar remark, "Drugs are a crutch for people who can't cope with reality."

In a fascinating variation on the theme of implied chiasmus, take a look at this observation by George Burns:

“It's hard for me to get used to these changing times.
I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.”

In this quote, George Burns doesn't reverse a saying, but rather what might be called the normal order of things. In his observation, he's comparing the good old days to the current state of affairs, when sex has become clean, and the air dirty. By "turning things around" in this way, comedians help people see things from a fresh, new perspective. In my view, observations like these still meet the essential criterion of implied chiasmus. Here are two more examples:

“A race track is a place where windows clean people.”

Danny Thomas
“Children never discuss sex in the presence of their elders.”

Henny Youngman

It's not just comedians who are able to drive home some important points with observations that reverse the natural order of things. When the Duke of Windsor visited America in 1957, he said in a famous Look Magazine article:

“The thing that impresses me most about America
is the way parents obey their children.”

Somewhat similarly, in his 1895 play The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde observed:

“Few parents nowadays pay any regard
to what their children say to them.
The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying.”

Consider this observation from the feminist leader Gloria Steinem:

“A liberated woman is one who has
sex before marriage and a job after.”

The quote became a signature line for Steinem in the 1970s. In my opinion, it's a perfect example of implied chiasmus, for it reverses the pattern for "traditional" women, who have jobs before marriage and sex after.

Sometimes, reversals of this sort have a paradoxical feel to them. The pianist and conductor George Szell once observed:

“In music one must think with the heart and feel with the brain.”

As with the prior quotes, we can consider this an example of implied chiasmus, since Szell's point is that music is an endeavor where one must do exactly the reverse of what people normally do, which is to think with the brain and feel with the heart.

In the past six months, some of the best entries in our monthly "Chiastic Quotes Competition" have been examples of implied chiasmus. Here are some of my favorites (in some cases, when the saying being reversed may not be obvious, I'll mention it).

“Those who question the Bible
have 'whys' for the word.”

(reversing “word for the wise”)
Frederick J. Ernst
“There's a broken light for every heart on Broadway.”

(reversing “There's a broken heart for every light on Broadway.”)
Diane Dickey
“The obsessive-compulsive Casanova writes a love poem
‘How shall I count thee? Let me love the ways.’”

Dennis R. Ridley
“44,920 visitors have loved this language site.”

(reversing the chiasmus.com counter which said, “44,920 language lovers have visited this site.”)
Visitor 44,920
“As the fan of Wall St. Week, Moneyline, and The Street said,”
‘There's no show like a business show!’”

(reversing, “There's no business like show business.”)
Tom Oliver
“Motto for casual-dress workdays:
‘Workers of the World, Untie.’”

(reversing the letters "it" to "ti" in the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite”)
Zandra Faulks
“As the cheetah said to the chameleon:
You can hide, but you can't run!”

Alan Williams

Every "Dr. Mardy's Quotes of the Week" mailing presents an original chiastic observation from me. Some have been examples of implied chiasmus:

“The successful struggle against depression
might well be called,
a long night's journey into day.”
“Impatient people
burn while other people fiddle.”
“I saw a great bumper sticker the other day:
‘I support the right to arm bears.’”

Even though these kinds of reversals have been going on for centuries, there has never been a popular word or phrase to describe the practice. That's why I coined the expression implied chiasmus. I'm even hoping that the term will eventually show up in dictionaries of literary terms (a man's gotta dream, doesn't he?).

As you can see, implied chiasmus abounds. I have several hundred examples in my personal collection, and keep finding more every week.

Double Chiasmus

In this edition, we feature a much rarer type of chiasmus, something I call Double Chiasmus.

Every now and then a single observation contains two separate chiastic reversals. One of the first examples I found in my research—and still one of the best I've seen—comes from Leonardo da Vinci: "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen."

When the two clauses of Da Vinci's observation are laid out parallel to each other, two separate chiastic reversals become apparent:

Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and
poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”

For obvious reasons, I've coined the expression double chiasmus to characterize an observation like this. Double chiasmus is the rarest type of chiasmus and, in some ways, is the most impressive. To forge a good one requires great conceptual ability and a high degree of language facility. Because they're so rare, I always feel a special thrill when I come upon one.

Here's another example, from former French president Georges Pompidou:

“A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation.
A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service.”

And here's one from American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz:

“When religion was strong and science weak,
men mistook magic for medicine;
now, when science is strong and religion weak,
men mistake medicine for magic.”

Observations like these can be appreciated in so many different ways and on so many different levels. Conceptually, examples of double chiasmus tend to extremely thought-provoking, capable of stimulating far-reaching discussions. Technically, they tend to be exquisite little constructions, in some cases even reaching the level of virtuosity. And, finally, from an aesthetic point of view, they can be appreciated as beautiful creations with balance and symmetry, point and counterpoint, and a whole that is far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

A final example comes from an anonymous source who is obviously familiar with people who do clinical work and research in medical settings:

“A clinician learns less & less about more & more
until he knows nothing about everything.
A researcher learns more & more about less & less
until he knows everything about nothing.”

In each of the examples of double chiasmus presented so far, there two separate reversals going on concurrently. There's another variation of double chiasmus which, while not quite as impressive as the ones just seen, is also quite interesting. An example comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity.
It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful,
and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”

As with the earlier examples, there are two separate reversals in this sentiment, but they emerge in a slightly different way. Instead of a concurrent reversal, the reversal here is sequential:

“Hate … causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly
and the ugly as beautiful,
and to confuse the true with the false
and the false with the true.”

As you can see, there's one reversal in the first clause, and another in the second. The same thing occurs in a famous observation from Erich Fromm, in his classic The Art of Loving:

“Infantile love follows the principle: ‘I love because I am loved.’
Mature love follows the principle: ‘I am loved because I love.’
Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’
Mature love says: ‘I need you because I love you.’”

This form of sequential double chiasmus occurs in poetry as well as in prose. Here's an example from "The Death Bed" by English poet Thomas Hood:

“Our very hopes belied our fears,
Our fears our hopes belied;
We thought her dying when she slept,
And sleeping when she died.”

As you can see, the quatrain contains two separate reversals, one in the first couplet, the other in the second.

Of course, it's possible to have three, four, or even more reversals of a sequential nature. Perhaps the best example of a sequential triple chiasmus comes from the Bible, in this passage from Isaiah 5:20:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

In this passage, Isaiah warns of the consequences that will befall those who are unable to tell good from bad and, as a result, are unable to make important moral distinctions. Unfortunately, a number of otherwise fine quotation books—including the wonderful Bartlett's Familiar Quotations—present only the first line of this passage, thus depriving readers of an opportunity to see a fairly unique quote, one with three distinct chiastic inversions.

Despite my extensive research efforts, I have discovered only about a half dozen examples of the concurrent type of double chiasmus.

Phonetic Chiasmus

In this edition, we feature another fascinating type, something I call Phonetic Chiasmus.

One of the reasons chiasmus has been so popular among language-lovers is that extraordinary chiastic lines can be created by inverting the sounds of words. An example is the song title:

“I'd rather have a Bottle in Front of me
(Than a Frontal Lobotomy).”

Written by an Atlanta physician named Dr. Randy Hanzlick—who writes songs as a hobby—notice how the familiar chiastic reversal shows up in sounds of words. This is a perfect example of what can only be called phonetic chiasmus.

By the way, Dr. Hanzlick told me the inspiration for his song was a piece of graffiti he found scrawled on a bathroom wall in a VA hospital in the early 1970's. It said, "I'd rather have a free bottle in front of me than a pre-frontal lobotomy." Hanzlick played around with the saying until he came up with his version. The saying is sometimes attributed to Tom Waits, but Hanzlick is the man who wrote the song.

During the gay 90s (that is, the 1890s), a chiastic "toast" became popular in Edwardian England, always bringing a hearty laugh after it was offered. The toast is so wonderful, I offer it whenever I can, and a century later, it's still met with roars of approval:

“Here's champagne to our real friends,
and real pain to our sham friends.”

As is obvious from this example, phonetic chiasmus sometimes involves straight-out puns or by wordplay with a punning edge. An example from early in U. S. history comes from John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In an unforgettable comment on Kentucky gentlemen, he wrote this little piece of chiastic verse:

“In the blue grass region,
A paradox was born:
The corn was full of kernals
And the colonels full of corn.”

Homonyms and homophones have been a godsend for wordsmiths interested in phonetic chiasmus. They allowed America's language maven, William Safire, to compose a perfect motto for his column-writing efforts:

“Better a jerk that knees
than a knee that jerks.”

This is not merely clever wordplay, either. It's Safire's way of saying he'd rather be seen as a dirty fighter than as a rigid ideologue who automatically takes a position because his political beliefs demand it.

Some of Richard Lederer's most fascinating questions about "Crazy English" fall into this category:

“Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?”
“Why do we play at a recital and recite at a play?”

As do some very clever ones from my new friend and inveterate punster Don Hauptman, author of Cruel and Unusual Puns. My favorite is the feeling one gets when invited to an S & M party:

“It's bound to be fun,
(And fun to be bound.)”

And, of course, there's the famous line from American humorist, John Kendrick Bangs:

“She would rather fool with a bee
than be with a fool.”

A memorable example of phonetic chiasmus comes from the 1960 presidential campaign, when a group of Protestant ministers headed by Norman Vincent Peale issued a statement opposing the Catholic candidate, John F. Kennedy. The group charged that Kennedy would not be able to free himself from the Catholic Church's "determined efforts to breach the wall of separation between church and state." An immediate outcry ensued and Peale resigned from the group—but not before Adlai Stevenson was able to craft the single best "sound-bite" of the campaign, contrasting Peale with one of his favorite churchmen, St. Paul:

“I find Paul appealing
and Peale appalling.”

Some examples of phonetic chiasmus are not obvious. A few years ago, I looked up "chiasmus" in Collier's Encyclopedia. To my surprise, the famous opening line of Coleridge's poem, Xanadu, was described as chiastic:

“In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan.”

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 also phonetically—for you:

“In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan.”
In Xan—a—du
did Ku—bla Khan.

In Zann—uh—doo
did Koo—bluh—Cann.

Voila! Another example of chiasmus by phonetic reversal.

Many examples of implied chiasmus are also examples of this kind of phonetic transposition. Two examples will suffice:

“Time wounds all heels.”
(reversing “Time heals all wounds”)
“A waist is a terrible thing to mind.”
(reversing “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”)

An intriguing variation of phonetic chiasmus occurs in the transposition of individual letters of words. Take a look at this line from an 1847 retirement speech by the English labor leader and government official, Sir Fred Burrows, as he stepped down from his post as the last Governor of the British colony of Bengal:

“Unlike my predecessors,
I have devoted more of my life
to shunting and hooting than
to hunting and shooting.”

At first, I thought his remark was a Spoonerism, but it quickly dawned on me that it was a very clever phonetic inversion:

“…I have devoted more of my life to shunting and hooting
than to hunting and shooting.”

Burrows was past president of the National Union of Railwaymen, the labor union representing English railroad workers. In contrast to his predecessors—political appointees who spent more time hunting and shooting Bengal tigers than attending to the affairs of government—Burrows was pointing out that his career had focused mainly on shunting passengers and hooting at management.

Chiasmus by Letter Reversal

In this edition, we take a look at Chiasmus by Letter Reversal.

Chiasmus can be achieved in many ways other than reversing words, and one of the most intriguing is by inverting the individual letters of words. You may recall the example I cited last month, from an 1847 retirement speech given by the English labor leader and government official, Sir Fred Burrows, as he stepped down from his post as the last Governor of the British colony of Bengal:

“Unlike my predecessors, I have devoted more of my life to
shunting and hooting than to hunting and shooting.”

At first, I thought his remark was a Spoonerism, but it quickly dawned on me that it was a deliberate and very clever transposition of the initial letters of the key words (notice how it could be "marked with an X"):

“…I have devoted more of my life to shunting and hooting
than to hunting and shooting.”

Burrows was past president of the National Union of Railwaymen, the union representing railroad workers in England. In contrast to his predecessors—political appointees who spent more time hunting and shooting Bengal tigers than attending to the affairs of government—Burrows was pointing out that his career had focused mainly on shunting of passengers and hooting at management.

A more recent version started showing up in psychology classrooms a few years ago (in each example, I'll continue to highlight the letters being reversed):

“A magician pulls rabbits out of hats.
An experimental psychologist pulls habits out of rats.”

Before talking further about this kind of chiasmus, which is clearly a deliberate act, let's spend a moment talking about the accidental transposition of consonants, as when someone says:

“Let me sew you to your sheet”
when they mean to say
“Let me show you to your seat.”

The technical word for this kind of inadvertent reversal is, of course, a spoonerism, named after William Archibald Spooner, a 19th century English cleric and educator who was famous for such gaffes. Another example had Spooner chastising one of his class-cutting students by saying:

“You have hissed all my mystery lectures”
when he meant to say
“You have missed all my history lectures.”

While Spooner undoubtedly did exhibit a tendency toward making such verbal blunders, most "spoonerisms" attributed to him are apocryphal and were invented by clever wordsmiths who simply wanted to legitimize their creations.

In chiasmus by letter reversal, the transposing of consonants is the very opposite of accidental, and it is fitting that one of the best examples would be about the good Dr. Spooner. In his book Cruel and Unusual Puns, Don Hauptman writes:

“One wag has suggested that Spooner
started out as a bird-watcher
and ended up as a word-botcher.”

Many of us grew up having fun with simple-minded riddles that are nothing more than examples of chiasmus by letter reversal. Here's one you may recall from your junior high school days: "What's the difference between a fisherman and a lazy student?" The answer:

“One baits hooks;
the other hates books.”

Not very sophisticated, I agree. But for many, riddles like these represented a very agreeable introduction to wordplay. Language-loving adults who wanted to introduce children to the joys and pleasures of language also favored riddles of this sort.

I was reminded of this recently when I got an e-mail from a new friend of chiasmus, Ingrid Young. She said her father was fond of posing a riddle to her and her friends while she was growing up. He'd ask, "What's the difference between a cross-eyed hunter and a constipated owl?" As the youngsters puzzled in vain over the answer, he'd finally reveal it with a sly smile:

“One shoots and shoots and can't hit;
the other hoots and hoots and can't …” you finish it yourself.

Of course, when the kids did complete it, there was much glee and many giggles. Ingrid said the word chiasmus was new to her, and after visiting my site, recalled her father's riddle, which she hadn't thought about in many years. I can't tell you how good I felt when she wrote, "It brought back delightful memories of a very colorful father."

As with Mr. Young's riddle, many examples of chiasmus by letter reversal border on the profane and risque, which of course makes them even more appealing to developing minds. A good example is, "What's the difference between a good joke and a bad odor? "The answer:

“Humor is a shift of wit.”
(finish it off yourself)

Some letter-reversal riddles, as you would expect, don't border on the profane and risque, they fall squarely into the category. I won't mention any of them them here, but I'm sure a number of you out there recall jokes involving "cunning little runts" and "souls full of hope." At some point, I may compile these bawdy examples and make them available in a piece on "X-Rated Chiasmus."

Implied Chiasmus by Letter Reversal

Implied chiasmus can also occur by letter reversal. I received a wonderful example recently from Charlie Robbins, another new friend of chiasmus. I especially enjoyed it because it was totally new to me:

“William Tell and his wife were avid bowlers,
but historical records have been lost and, therefore,
we'll never know for whom the Tells bowled.”

Of course, most people will immediately appreciate this as a very clever letter reversal of the John Donne line that became the title of the great Hemingway novel: For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Another great example—also brand-new to me—comes from another new friend, Don Hauptman who asks in the very first line of his book, Cruel and Unusual Puns:

“Have you heard about the inner-city
video game called Super Barrio Mothers?”

As with all examples of implied chiasmus, half the fun comes from figuring out what's being reversed, and the rest from admiring the creativity involved in crafting the observation in the first place. (For the one or two of you out there who may be in the dark about this one, it's based on a popular video game called Super Mario Brothers).

Some of these kinds of reversals have become part of the "lingo" of professional groups. For many years, lawyers have enjoyed boasting about "bailing a client's ass out of jail." And then, when asked how their client is doing, they take a special delight in replying:

“I'm happy to report he's bright-eyed and tushy-bailed.”

In health-care settings, more than one medical professional has been ready to answer a patient's question about the effectiveness of a procedure by saying:

“I guess you could say this treatment really whacks a polyp.”

I actually heard a version of this last one a few years ago while undergoing the joys of a flexible sigmoidoscopy. When the technician learned about my work on chiasmus, he asked if "whacking a polyp" was an example. After explaining that it was, I asked if the expression was original with him, and he said it was not, adding that it was a common expression among urologists and oncologists.

This finishes our look at chiasmus by letter reversal.

Numerical Chiasmus

In the Chiasmus by Letter Reversal edition, we looked at how chiasmus could be achieved by reversing the individual letters of words; in this edition, we look at what happens when numbers are reversed. A perfect example is an anonymous observation, which goes back many years:

“The two greatest highway menaces are
drivers under 25 going over 65
and drivers over 65 going under 25.”

A provocative example of chiasmus by number reversal comes from the world of law, where more than a century ago, U.S. Attorney General Benjamin H. Brewster captured an intriguing truth about legal advice:

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

Examples of numerical chiasmus often have this clever, light-hearted quality. Consider this gem crafted by the wife of Walter Cronkite a few years ago:

“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

In addition to loving the observation, I had a couple of other reactions when I came upon the quote. First, as somebody who grew up watching Walter deliver the evening news, I never quite thought of Walter that way before. And I also thought, "Now that's a secure wife with a good sense of humor."

Speaking of husbands and wives, the following observation from William Binger captures one of the essential differences between my wife and me:

“A man is a person who will pay two dollars
for a one-dollar item he wants.
A woman will pay one dollar
for a two-dollar item she doesn't want.”

I don't know how widely this generalization applies, but it certainly describes my marriage. I'm always paying more for an item because I really want it and Katherine is always buying something she doesn't need because it's such a bargain.

Numerical chiasmus shows up in many different arenas. A fantastic example from the sports world came when pitcher Frank Tanana came to the end of his baseball career. At age 39, Tanana reflected on the change in his pitching velocity over the years, cleverly observing:

“In the 70's I threw in the 90's;
in the 90's I throw in the 70's.”

Here's another one from the world of sport, crafted a few years ago by Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe:

“Padilla is a 1 with overtones of a 2,
while Travieso is a 2 with overtones of a 1.”

If you're a sports fan, you know exactly what Ryan means in this assessment of Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, the two guards on the 1996 University of Massachusetts basketball team. For those who require a translation, I'll let Ryan explain it himself: "Padilla is a point guard, or floor leader, who can also shoot and take it to the hole. Travieso is a hired gun type of shooter who is not struck dumb when the coach asks him to bring the ball up."

Moving from the sports world to the literary world, it is well-known that all writers look for interesting ways to begin their novels. Well, they don't get much better than this line from the very first paragraph of Dylan Thomas's 1945 book, A Child's Christmas in Wales.

“I can never remember whether it snowed for
six days and six nights when I was twelve
or whether it snowed for
twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Thomas's opening line beautifully captures the confusion adults often experience when they try to recall things from the past. Another wonderful literary example comes from a charming story told about Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie. Like a lot of people in his profession, the Scottish writer was uncomfortable speaking in front of large groups of people. After a speaking engagement before a thousand coeds at Smith College, a friend asked Barrie how it went. He replied:

“To tell you the truth,
I'd much rather talk one thousand times to one girl,
than talk one time to a thousand girls.”

Numerical chiasmus even shows up in proverbial wisdom. Take this proverb, which has been popular in France and Germany, and elsewhere around the world, for more than four hundred years:

“One father is better at caring for ten children
than ten children are for one father.”

Like much proverbial wisdom, the saying captures some of the difficulties of life, especially the pain and heartache older people experience when they feel ignored or neglected by the children they gave to and sacrificed for during the growing-up years. Shakespeare was thinking along the same lines when he wrote in King Lear: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child."

Chiastic Shorthand

In this edition, we take a look at Chiastic Shorthand.

There's a statue in Paris commemorating Niobe (pronounced NY-uh-bee), the Queen of Thebes in Greek mythology. The mother of numerous children, she boasted of her fertility and disparaged the goddess Leto for having only two children. It turned out to be a fatal mistake. Leto sought revenge and, with her two children, Apollo and Artemis, killed all of Niobe's children. In despair, Niobe fled to Mt. Sipylus in Asia Minor, where Zeus turned her into a stone that wept perpetually. She is known in literature as the personification of maternal sorrow. In a famous literary allusion, Hamlet describes his mother's behavior at his father's funeral this way: "Like Niobe, all tears."

Niobe's story is an interesting one. But even more interesting to friends of chiasmus is the inscription that appears at the base of her statue. Written by Voltaire, it reads (when translated into English):

“The fatal anger of the gods
Turned this woman into stone
The sculptor did much better—
Namely, the opposite.”

Voltaire concludes the verse with an intriguing chiastic suggestion—that the sculptor outdid the gods by turning the stone into a woman. He doesn't formally complete the thought because he is sure readers will know exactly what he means. By using a helpful little language convention—simply writing "the opposite"—he communicates what he means without having to use the actual words.

Voltaire does something very similar in one of his most quoted remarks:

“If God created us in his own image
we have more than reciprocated.”

Once again, he only suggests the chiasm—that we humans have more than reciprocated by creating God in our image. It's a thought-provoking notion in its own right, but it's also another interesting way—another shorthand way—of framing a chiastic thought.

Vice Versa

In his 1976 book, Ins and Outs of Institutional Investing, the legendary American investor, Dean Le Baron writes:

“Wall Street is a topsy-turvy place where
that which seems right to do is often very wrong,
and vice versa.”

What Le Baron means—without actually saying it—is pretty straightforward: "And that which seems wrong to do is often very right."

Here, vice versa is not merely a shorthand way of indicating a chiastic reversal, it's also a more effective way of expressing the thought. Instead of boring, or worse, annoying readers by laying out all the words of an obvious chiasm, Le Baron uses vice versa to get people to finish the thought on their own. Shorthand methods of expressing chiasmus have this additional benefit of involving people in a dialogue with the writer, since they must complete the thought themselves.

Another wonderful example comes from the English orchestra conductor and impresario, Thomas Beecham, who was well-known for his willingness to say exactly what he thought, even if it offended people. When a reporter once asked him why he chose only very large women to sing the soprano roles in his opera productions, he replied:

“Unfortunately, sopranos who
sing like birds
eat like horses,
and vice versa.”

Only two words were required to communicate Beecham's message: "And sopranos who eat like birds, sing like horses."

Vice Versa is such an integral part of regular discourse that people rarely give thought to the fact that it's composed of Latin words that go back two thousand years to the imperial days of Rome. From then until now, it's meant pretty much what the Oxford English Dictionary says it means: "A reversal or transposition of the main items in the statement just made."

When traced to its Latin roots, vice versa literally means, "the regular position turned around or reversed." The expression has been used in English for nearly four centuries, making its first appearance in an English language publication in the early 1600's. While its meaning has always been the same, its pronunciation has changed over the centuries. Early on it was pronounced VY-see VUR-suh. Over time, it evolved to VY-suh VER-suh, which became the "correct" pronunciation until well into this century. As timed passed, the pronunciation drifted to VICE VER-suh, which is the most common version today, even though it's still listed in most dictionaries as second in acceptability after VY-suh VER-suh (which some purists still regard as the only acceptable pronuciation).

Some vice versa quotes are ancient, like this 4th century B.C. observation from Aristotle:

“When quarrels and complaints arise,
it is when people who are equal have unequal shares,
or vice versa.”

Some have become part and parcel of the popular culture, like this from the former GM chairman and Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson:

“For years I thought what was good for our country
was good for General Motors,
and vice versa.”

Vice Versa quotes show up in every area of discourse, as the following three quotes demonstrate:

“You can change your faith
without changing your gods.
And vice versa.”

Stanislaw J. Lec
“The truth of a proposition
has nothing to do with its credibility.
And vice versa.”

Robert A. Heinlein
“Artists don't seek reasons.
They are all by definition children,
and vice versa.”

Ned Rorem

In general, vice versa quotes are fairly self-evident, as in the three foregoing quotes. Some, however, require a bit of thought and reflection, like this observation from the American advertising executive, Alan H. Meyer:

“The name acquires the attributes of the thing,
not vice versa.”

Calling it one of his "laws of advertising," Meyer offered this thought in response to marketing types who believed that the name drives the product, and not vice versa. I think Meyer is right. The Edsel, even if called a Mustang, would've still been an Edsel.

Some are offered facetiously, like the advice from Stephen Potter—of "one-upmanship" fame—on what to say after sampling a glass of wine:

“A good general rule is
to state that the bouquet is better than the taste,
and vice versa.”

Sometimes the humorous effect is unintended, but just as funny, as in this head-scratching observation from the legendary baseball manager, Casey Stengel:

“Good pitching will always stop good hitting,
and vice versa.”

Some are examples of very clever wordplay, like the immortal response Dorothy Parker gave to a friend who asked her why she hadn't attended a Broadway play featuring a character modeled after her:

“I've been too fucking busy,
and vice versa.”

And sometimes it's hard to know exactly what they mean, as in this enigmatic assertion from the late rock star, Frank Zappa:

“Pop music has done more for oral intercourse
than anything else that ever happened,
and vice versa.”

While I think I understand the first part of Zappa's remark, I can honestly say that I have no idea what oral intercourse has done for pop music. But who am I to question a rock legend?

Whether straightforward, humorous, puzzling, profane, or downright mysterious, vice versa is the most common shorthand way of expressing chiasmus. But it's not the only method.

The Other Way Around

The second major method of chiastic shorthand happens when we complete a thought by using the words.

In 1970, former New York Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four, an entertaining portrayal of his life in the big leagues. The book contained numerous examples of Bouton's candor, wit, and overall ability to tell a good story. It also contained some well-crafted, and downright memorable, lines:

“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball
and in the end it turns out that
it was the other way around all the time.”

Of all the alternatives at his disposal, Bouton couldn't have found a better way of communicating that it was baseball that had him in its grip all along.

Another example comes from a birthday card I received a few years ago from my daughter and her husband.

The message on the outside read:
“You know you're really old if you remember
when girls had ponytails and boys had crewcuts.”

the message on the inside said:
“Instead of the other way around.”

The card reflected an interesting social change that occurred in my lifetime, boys beginning to wear ponytails and girls getting crewcuts. It was a perfect card to give an old-timer like me, made especially appropriate because of my interest in chiasmus.

This example comes from the English lawyer and language expert, Sir Ernest Gowers:

“It is not easy nowadays to remember …
that officials are the servants of the public;
and the official must not try to foster the illusion
that it is the other way round.”

That is, the illusion that the public are the servants of public officials.

In the 1994 Mel Brooks' spoof, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Robin escapes from a Jerusalem prison and plans to return to England. A fellow escapee named Asneeze (Isaac Hayes, in a cameo role) asks Robin to look after his son—named Achoo—who is an exchange student in London. Always trying to sneak risqué elements into his pictures, Brooks has Asneeze say to Robin:

“I'd like you to look after him.
He's in need of guidance.
He's headstrong and cocksure.
Or is it the other way around?”

The line goes by so quickly, it's easy to miss the meaning—that Achoo has been cockstrong and headsure, two characteristics (besides being headstrong and cocksure) that are certain to cause problems for an exchange student in a foreign land. One of the problems when a shorthand chiastic expression like this is used in a movie or play is that it takes a moment for people to "compute" the inversion in their minds. If the computation is not made quickly, a clever line can go straight over people's heads.

Some writers simply say "the other way" instead of "the other way around," but it means the same thing. In his Lectures on Architecture and Painting (1853), English critic John Ruskin writes:

“The changes which God causes in His lower creatures
are almost always from worse to better,
while the changes which God allows man to make in himself
are very often quite the other way.”

Ruskin's point is so clear that it needs no explanation. But some "other way around" expressions require some thought for the meaning to become clear. In his Memoirs, American writer Sherwood Anderson writes:

“You hear it said that fathers want their sons
to be what they feel they cannot themselves be,
but I tell you it also works the other way.”

Anderson's point, of course, is that sons are as likely to have unrealistic and irrational expectations of their fathers as fathers have of their sons.

In his 1830 classic, The Physiology of Marriage, Honoré de Balzac writes:

“A lover always thinks of his mistress first and himself second;
with a husband it runs the other way.”

What Balzac means is that, in a marriage, a husband puts his needs first and his wife's second, the exact reverse of the lover, who is so smitten he gives the object of his affection the higher priority.

In a 1996 Boston Globe article, sportswriter Bob Ryan wrote an article about college basketball star Stephon Marbury, who had just been selected very high in the NBA draft. The article contained this line:

“He plays basketball and then he sticks his hand out.
(Or is it the other way around?).”

While making specific reference to Marbury, Ryan was thinking about almost all recent NBA draftees, who've spent the whole of their young lives playing basketball, and have never done any real work. Ryan wrote, "This is a whole new generation of young athletes, these modern basketball players. This is a generation that has never worked. Earning, they know not. Taking, they know very well."

To make sure people know exactly what they mean, many writers use an expression like "the other way around" and then complete the thought explicitly. American writer Eric Hoffer does exactly this in his 1967 book, The Temper of Our Times:

“We used to think that revolutions are the cause of change.
Actually it is the other way around:
change prepares the ground for revolution.”

So does Philip Howard in his 1995 book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. Discussing how well-intended laws can backfire, he writes:

“Precise rules, most people believe, ‘close off loopholes.’
It happens to be the other way around.
Loopholes only exist because of precise rules.”

And, finally, so does Arthur Burns, presidential advisor and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, in a 1970 commencement speech he delivered at Hebrew University:

“I do not hold with those who say that power corrupts men.
Rather, it is the other way around;
men without morality corrupt power.”

Whether or not the final thought is completed, "the other way around" is a common way of indicating a chiastic reversal.

Chiastic shorthand has two major benefits. First, it makes it unnecessary for people to wade through an obvious chiastic thought. And second, since listeners or readers must complete the thought on their own, they're automatically thrust into a dialogue with the author of the sentiment.

The Reverse Is True

Another popular way of achieving chiasmus without using the actual words is to simply say, "And the reverse is true" after making a reversible statement. One of the best examples of all time is a joke that emerged in Poland during the Cold War:

“What is the difference between Capitalism and Communism?
In Capitalism, man exploits man.
In Communism, the reverse is true.”

The joke, which began making the rounds in the 1950s, became so popular that some quote books of that era called it a "modern Polish proverb." It was a clever way for Polish citizens to snub their noses at the ideology of their Soviet oppressors, and in the process, point out that the exploitation of man will exist regardless of ideological rhetoric.

Another example comes from Karl Marx, in this line from his 1867 classic, Das Kapital:

“In the pre-capitalist stages of society,
commerce rules industry.
The reverse is true of modern society.”

Marx uses a bit of chiastic shorthand here to express his view about the evils of 19th century capitalism. In his view, the greedy giants of industry had begun to exert an unhealthy and unnatural control over the buying and selling of goods, perverting what he regarded as the natural order of things.

One can achieve the same chiastic result without actually using the exact words "the reverse is true." A few years ago, French writer Joseph Roux said:

“Literature was formerly an art and finance a trade;
today it is the reverse.”

Those familiar with developments in the publishing industry in the past few decades can appreciate what Roux is saying, for today it often does seem as if literature has become the trade and finance the art.

In yet another example, Max Baer, the heavyweight boxing champ in the 1930s, said:

“I think golf is good for boxing,
but the reverse is far from being the case.”

"The reverse" in Baer's intriguing observation means that boxing is not good for golf. Why golf is good for boxing and not the reverse I don't know, but it's a good illustration of a variation of the "reverse is true" theme. So is the following observation from the 18th century English poet, William Shenstone:

“Every good poet includes a critic,
but the reverse will not hold.”

Shenstone begins by pointing out that all good poets have an internal critic who provides an important quality control function. His second point is one virtually all creative artists would agree with, that every critic does not include a good poet.

One other variation on the "reverse is true" theme is contained in this Bruce Gould observation:

“In England I would rather be
a man, a horse, a dog, or a woman, in that order.
In America I think the order would be reversed.”

Gould's point, of course, is that America is not exactly a man's world, for there he'd rather be a woman, a dog, a horse, and then a man, in that order.

Shorthand chiastic expressions are a wonderful way to streamline language and make thoughts and ideas flow more smoothly. Take this example from the 19th century German philosopher, Goethe:

“That which is right and prudent
does not always lead to good,
nor the contrary to what is bad;
frequently the reverse takes place.”

Phrased this way, most people immediately "get" Goethe's point: good actions sometimes have bad outcomes, bad actions sometimes good. It's not necessary for Goethe to spell out the entire observation, and it would have been cumbersome if he had done so.

A final example is the German proverb:

“Marriage is fever in reverse:
it starts with heat and ends with cold.”

As with previous examples, the simple words "in reverse" allow readers to understand the message about the predictable loss of ardor over time in marriage.

The Opposite Is True

Yet another major shorthand way of expressing chiasmus is to say "The opposite is true." In a 1958 interview, French novelist Françoise Sagan said:

“The illusion of art is to make one believe
that great literature is very close to life,
but exactly the opposite is true.”

By ending her observation this way, Sagan asserts that life is much closer to great literature than great literature is to life. It's an intriguing idea and suggests that, in addition to talking about literature that's true to life, it's also possible to talk about life that's true to literature.

As with our prior example, it's not necessary to use the exact words "the opposite is true" to achieve the desired result. When I first introduced the topic of chiastic shorthand here on "Types of Chiasmus" a few months ago, I mentioned an inscription that Voltaire wrote for a statue of Niobe in Paris:

“The fatal anger of the gods
Turned this woman into stone;
The sculptor did much better—
Namely, the opposite.”

The point of the inscription is that the sculptor performed the impressive feat of turning a stone into a woman. To fully appreciate the inscription, it's necessary to understand the story behind it. Niobe was the Queen of Thebes in Greek mythology. The mother of numerous children, she made a fatal mistake by disparaging the goddess Leto for having only two children. Leto sought vengeance and, with the assistance of her two children, Apollo and Artemis, killed all of Niobe's children. In despair, Niobe fled to Mt. Sipylus in Asia Minor, where Zeus turned her into a stone that wept perpetually. In one of Shakespeare's most famous allusions, Hamlet described his mother's behavior at his father's funeral by saying, "Like Niobe, all tears."

Edward Albee does something similar in a 1966 Saturday Review article:

“A good writer turns fact into truth;
a bad writer will, more often than not,
accomplish the opposite.”

That is, a bad writer will accomplish the questionable feat of turning truth into fact.

As with earlier examples of chiastic shorthand, people will sometimes use the "opposite is true" expression and then go on to formally complete the thought, even though it's not completely necessary. The American businessman and philanthropist Alfred P. Sloan once said:

“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.”

As president and chairman of General Motors, Sloan was a pioneer in the development of modern management methods (the Sloan School of Management at MIT is named after him). In this observation, he takes a totally new look at the American reputation for discarding things so readily.

Newt Gingrich did something similar in a lecture he gave on "History and Leadership" a few years ago:

“It is … a major mistake we've made since WWII
to suggest that life is easy
and the difficulties are the aberration.
I think the opposite is true.
I think life is normally hard,
and it's the good moments that are the aberration.”

In both observations, Sloan and Gingrich suggest that the opposite is true, and then go on to formally complete their thoughts, presumably to make sure their point is made.

In a January 1999 article in U. S. News and World Report, John Leo published his annual review of the "best aphorisms and most memorable sayings" of 1998. One memorable observation came from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel:

“Once upon a time we talked about
politics in public and sex in private.
Now it's the opposite.”

By using a language convention that is understood by almost everybody, Wiesel doesn't have to formally complete the thought to describe how much the times have changed.

Other Miscellaneous Methods

Let me bring this discussion to a close by presenting a few more miscellaneous examples of chiastic shorthand. One of the most powerful quotations of all time is this provocative observation by Voltaire:

“If God created us in his own image
we have more than reciprocated.”

If Voltaire had explicitly laid out the entire thought, the power of his message would have been diluted. However, by having readers complete the thought on their own, he makes sure they consciously consider what many people at the time considered a heretical notion—that man created God in his own image. It's another example of the power of chiastic shorthand.

Another intriguing example comes from the Roman writer Phaedrus, a freed Roman slave who wrote fables in the manner of Aesop. Many of the most popular fables in Europe in the middle ages can be traced back to him. In one of his fables, he writes:

“Those who are despised usually return the favor.”

Again, it's a clever little bit of chiastic shorthand, made all the more profound by its brevity. Not only would it have been cumbersome for Phaedrus to lay out the complete sentiment, it would have weakened his message.

Another example comes from English writer Joseph Addison:

“Health and cheerfulness mutually beget each other.”

Addison doesn't have to spell out the thought completely, for we immediately understand his point: health leads to cheerfulness and cheerfulness to health.

A final example comes from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal:

“The sensibility of man to trifles,
and his insensibility to great things,
indicates a strange inversion.”

Pascal's use of the word "inversion" indicates that his mind is on a chiastic track, since what he means is, "a strange inversion from the way things should be." This observation, then, becomes an example of implied chiasmus, with Pascal suggesting that people would be better off if they showed a sensibility to great things and an insensibility to trifles.

Chiastic Questions

In this edition, we take a look at Chiastic Questions.

When I first got interested in the subject of chiasmus nearly ten years ago, a thought-provoking question from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of my early discoveries:

“Which is it, is man one of God's blunders,
or is God one of man's blunders?”

From his 1889 book The Twilight of the Gods, Nietzsche's question is similar to one that freethinking philosophers have asked for centuries: did God create man, or did man create God?

For many, many centuries, chiasmus has been an excellent device for posing penetrating questions. In his Euthyphro, Plato asked:

“Are things pious because the gods love them,
or do the gods love them because they are pious?”

And in the 5th century B. C., Sophocles asked in Antigone:

“What greater ornament to a son than a father's glory,
or to a father than a son's honorable conduct?”

Also in the 5th century B. C., Euripides asked:

“Who knows but life be that which men call death,
and death what men call life?”

Quotes like these are not "questions" in the normal sense of the word because they're not requests for information. Rather, they're attempts to provoke thinking and stimulate deeper reflection about important topics. They're all examples of a "Rhetorical Question," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "A question to which no answer is expected, often used for rhetorical effect."

Poets have been especially fond of posing chiastic questions of a rhetorical nature. In his poem "What is It?" William Blake writes:

“What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.”

On the surface, it looks as if both men and women require the same thing, but I don't believe that's what Blake meant. Lineaments are the distinguishing features or details of a person's face, body, or even personality—their unique characteristics. Blake is suggesting that everybody needs someone who can gratify their particular—perhaps even idiosyncratic—desires.

Other poets have also posed some pretty interesting chiastic questions:

“Has the Church failed mankind,
or has mankind failed the Church?”

T. S. Eliot
“And what should they know of England
who only England know?”

Rudyard Kipling
“Is getting well ever an art
Or art a way to get well?”

Robert Lowell
“When water turns to ice does it
remember one time it was water?
When ice turns back into
water does it remember it was ice?”

Carl Sandburg

Good chiastic questions get people to pause, to think about things from different perspectives, to see something first this way, and then that way. They invariably promote what educational theorists used to call "higher-order thinking." Take the subject of Romance, for example. Why does it have such allure for people? And why has it had such appeal for so many centuries? You'll never think about the subject in the same way again after pondering over Thomas Wolfe's great chiastic question:

“Is this not the true romantic feeling—
not to desire to escape life,
but to prevent life from escaping you?”

Many wonderful chiastic questions are not about abstract, theoretical problems, but about the stuff of real life. Dr. Harry Benjamin, the American surgeon who coined the term "transsexualism" once asked:

“I ask myself, in mercy, or in common sense,
if we cannot alter the conviction to fit the body,
should we not, in certain circumstances,
alter the body to fit the conviction?”

Dr. Benjamin was explaining his rationale for sex-change surgery in the case of James Morris, whose story about feeling like a woman trapped in a man's body so touched Dr. Benjamin that it persuaded him to do the operation. After the successful surgery, the patient became Jan Morris. On the occasion of Dr. Benjamin's death in 1986, a grateful Ms. Morris recalled her first consultation with Benjamin, saying, "I told him everything, and it was from him that I learned what my future would be."

A number of years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As I was surveying my options, I came across an article on "The Prostate Predicament" in a 1994 issue of Health magazine. An American physician and urologist named Dr. Gerald Chodak wrote:

“There's an old saying in medicine,
‘When a cure is possible, is it necessary?
And when it's necessary, is it possible.’”

Dr. Chodak was pointing out that prostate cancer often progresses so slowly that doctors don't know exactly how much danger the disease poses to a newly-diagnosed patient (and, therefore, whether or not an aggressive therapy—like surgery or radiation—should be done). The maxim obviously had a special salience for me. I chose surgery (and five years later, it looks like it was a wise decision).

Chiastic questions are not the sole province of serious thinkers; they often show up in pop culture as well. In a song from the 1957 musical Cinderella, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics to a song called "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" The song posed this intriguing chiastic question:

“Do I love you because you're beautiful?
Or are you beautiful because I love you?”

In the 1950s, the blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren engaged in some clever chiastic thinking when she said:

“It's true that gentleman prefer blondes.
Is it possible that blondes also prefer gentlemen?”

More recently, Eddie van Halen asked a question that many Rock 'n Rollers have asked themselves (and certainly many other people have asked of Rock 'n Rollers):

“Are we this way because we're in a rock band,
or are we in a rock band because we're this way?”

In my weekly e-mail subscription service called "Chiastic Quotes of the Week," I come up with a personal chiastic observation. Sometimes I've tried my own hand at framing good chiastic questions:

“When I hear it said that people are stuck in the past, I think,
‘isn't it more accurate to say the past is stuck in them?’”
“Wheaties has long been known as The Breakfast of Champions.
Why haven't they also hailed it as The Champion of Breakfasts?”
“Why is it that the people who have the power generally lack the wisdom,
and the people who have the wisdom generally lack the power?”

Try it yourself sometime. It's not as easy as it looks. And the rush you get when you frame a particularly good one is hard to beat.

Chiastic Definitions

In this edition, we take a look at Chiastic Definitions.

The dictionary defines definition as "a statement of the meaning or significance of a word." A good definition is fairly short and usually captures the principal features or ingredients of the thing being defined. For as long as definitions have been around, wits, wags, and wordsmiths have been composing witty or clever definitions. In the early 1900s, Ambrose Bierce published a book of sardonic definitions called The Devil's Dictionary. His book has become a classic in American literature and all true wordsmiths are familiar with it. One of his best entries was a wonderful example of chiasmus:

“Architect, n.,  One who drafts a plan of your house,
and plans a draft of your money.”

When I came across this definition nearly ten years ago, it became clear to me that chiasmus is a perfect device for creating quotable definitions. First of all, chiastic sayings have a special capacity to capture the essence of things, often in a very succinct way. And, secondly, chiastic creations can be extremely memorable, or unbelievably clever, which is a real bonus when constructing definitions. I vowed to stay on the lookout for more examples of what I began to call "Chiastic Definitions." It wasn't long before I found my next one:

“Home is where the great are small,
and the small are great.”

I loved this saying from the first minute I discovered it, for it captures one of the most special and enduring qualities about that institution we call home. A friend told me a story that illustrates the point. Several years ago, a college friend of his, who'd become a high-level political advisor in the Clinton Administration, had spent an entire Saturday at the White House debating whether or not to send American troops to Bosnia. That evening he arrived home to discover that his wife and two children had barred him from any say in the movies they were going to rent for the weekend. Could any other saying capture this reality as beautifully?

As with the home quote, many of the best chiastic definitions come from anonymous sources:

“Middle age is when
work is a lot less fun
and fun a lot more work.”
“An actor is a person
who plays when he works
and works when he plays.”
“A baby-sitter is a teenager acting like an adult,
while the adults are out acting like teenagers.”
“Boss, n.,  a person who's always early when you're late
and always late when you're early.”

Not surprisingly, comedians have been interested in chiastic definitions. Ed Wynn even used chiasmus to capture the essence of a comedian:

“A comedian is not a man who says funny things.
A comedian is one who says things funny.”

Other comedians have joined in the act, exploiting the potential of chiasmus to describe many other things in life:

“Television is a vehicle that permits people
who haven't anything to do
to watch people who can't do anything.”

Fred Allen
“A diet is when you watch what you eat
and wish you could eat what you watch.”

Hermione Gingold
“Middle age is when
your age starts to show around your middle.”

Bob Hope

Given their love of language and interest in wordplay, it's only natural that poets have tried their hand at chiastic definitions. In his 1821 A Defense of Poetry, Shelley used a wonderful chiasm in his famous definition of poetry:

“Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments
of the happiest and best minds.”

And 150 years later, in 1971, W. H. Auden found chiasmus extremely helpful when trying to describe the essence of his craft:

“In poetry you have a form looking for a subject
and a subject looking for a form.
When they come together successfully you have a poem.”

Many intellectuals and philosophers have found a friend in chiasmus. In reflecting on the nature of progress, Alfred North Whitehead may not have crafted a "quotable definition" but he certainly constructed a "definitive quote" when he wrote:

“The art of progress is
to preserve order amid change,
and to preserve change amid order.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson, ever the curmudgeon and rational observer of human folly, got to the heart of the matter in his classic observation about matters of the heart:

“Love is the wisdom of the fool
and the folly of the wise.”

And finally, Corita Kent, the American graphic artist and former nun, helped me see the women's movement in a totally new way when I first came upon her famous observation:

“Women's liberation is
the liberation of the feminine in the man
and the masculine in the woman.”

You could probably quibble with me and make the argument that not all the quotes in this section are true definitions. But, to my mind, they all meet the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of a definition: "stating exactly what a thing is, or what a word means." And, as we have seen, whether attempting a serious or a comic definition of a particular subject, chiasmus can come in very handy.

Implied Chiastic Definitions

Implied chiasmus is the reversal of an existing, often well-known, phrase. Two popular examples are Kermit the Frog saying, "Time's fun when you're having flies" and Ziggy saying, "The waist is a terrible thing to mind." Implied chiasmus is a type of chiasmus in its own right, but has also been used to craft some pretty memorable definitions, including one of my all-time favorites:

“A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

Like many other people, I first learned of this saying while I was in college, decades before I knew what the word chiasmus meant. It came back to me five or six years ago, and was one of the quotes that helped me come up with the concept of "implied chiasmus."

Many wonderful chiastic definitions have been crafted in this manner. You're probably familiar with this famous quote from the American economist Thorstein Veblen:

“Invention is the mother of necessity.”

And perhaps you've heard of Danny Thomas's famous observation:

“A race track is a place
where windows clean people.”

Or maybe even Alexander Woolcott's classic:

“A broker is a man who takes your fortune
and runs it into a shoestring.”

And who can forget Oscar Wilde's famous reversal of the old saying, "Drink is the curse of the working classes":

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”

But one of my absolute favorites comes from the American movie director Billy Wilder, who once observed:

“France is a country where the money falls apart
and you can't tear the toilet paper.”

If this one is not clear to you, let me explain. In this observation, Wilder is suggesting that France reverses what is found in most other countries, where the toilet paper falls apart and you can't tear the money.


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