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." 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
"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.)
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 chiasms 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:
"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 chiasms 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:
"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:
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
"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."
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. 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.