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 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."
Notice how the reversal of numbers can be "marked with an X," in the classical chiastic manner. I won't do it with
any more quotes in this section, but all of them could be similarly marked.
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."
If you're aware of any examples of numerical chiasmus, or come across any in the future, please send them along.
I don't have all that many examples right now, and would dearly love to expand my collection.