All examples of chiasmus share the same distinctive structure-a reversal in word order that can be
"marked with an X" (as described in Welcome to the World of Chiasmus.)
However, there are a number of interesting variations on the chiastic theme. We'll examine all
of them here at "Types of Chiasmus." 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 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.
This brings to an end our examination of Chiastic Definitions. If you come across any examples in your reading or research, please
send them along.