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 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
"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
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:
did Ku—bla Khan.
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.