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 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 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. If you come across any examples that I've not mentioned,
please send them along.