If you aren't sure what chiasmus (ky-AZ-mus) means, you have a lot of company. Most people—even the most sophisticated and literate people—aren't. Chiasmus occurs when the order of words is reversed in parallel expressions. While you may not be familiar with the word, you're well acquainted with the phenomenon, for it shows up in thousands of famous quotations, like:
And, of course, chiasmus shows up in perhaps the most stirring words uttered in the 20th century, delivered on a cold January morning in 1961 by the youngest man ever elected president of the United States:
Chiasmus can only be regarded as an obscure word. You can discover this for yourself. Go to ten of your smartest friends and ask them, "Do you know what chiasmus means?" I predict you won't find a single person who'll know. After nearly a decade of research, I estimate that only one or two people in a thousand can correctly answer such a question. My goal is to change that. The purpose of this site—and of my book on the subject—is to bring chiasmus out of the closet of obscurity and move it into the world of popular parlance.
The situation is not without precedent. Take oxymoron. Fifty years ago, it was an obscure word, known by only a small and select group of people. Gradually, it moved from academic to literary circles, and then on to the world of sophisticates and hipsters. Today, virtually all literate people know that it means a contradiction in terms, like "jumbo shrimp" "thundering silence," and, according to some, "military intelligence." It took a half-century for oxymoron to make the transition from obscurity to popular usage. My goal is more ambitious. A few years from now, I believe that most literate people will know what chiasmus means. And if it they do, I'll take a certain amount of pride in knowing that it happened primarily because of my efforts.
Nearly a decade ago, while looking up the definition of "circumlocution" in the dictionary, I accidentally stumbled on chiasmus. I'd never seen the word before. My first reaction wasn't all that special, but I'm an avid reader and a word lover, so I often stop to take a closer look at new and unfamiliar words. During the next few weeks, something interesting began to happen. Even though I was unfamiliar with the term, I began to realize that some of my all-time favorite quotations were examples of chiasmus:
Then something fateful happened. I was browsing through the aisles of a used book store when I came across a book with a title so faded I could barely make it out—Herbert Prochnow's 1942 book, The Public Speaker's Treasure Chest. I slid the book off the shelf, intending to flip through the pages to see if I could find anything interesting. I began with the very last page, but didn't get any further. A quotation near the top of the page leaped out at me. It was from one of my intellectual heroes, the English lexicographer and man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson:
The quotation gripped me. Yes, it was another example of chiasmus. But what got my attention was how Johnson's observation captured what had been happening to me over the past few weeks. Something new—chiasmus—was becoming familiar. And I was beginning to look at something familiar—favorite quotations from my past—in a totally new way. I was hooked.
Ever since, my life has been consumed by chiasmus and the search for chiastic (that's the adjective) quotations. I've read thousands of books—including many of the classic works of the world's great thinkers—in search of them. I personally own more than 250 books of quotations—and have scoured hundreds more—in search of them. Whenever I read a book, magazine, or newspaper, I'm on the lookout. Whenever I go to a movie, I'm listening for a chiastic quote, or an example of chiastic dialogue. I now have nearly 10,000 chiastic quotes in my personal collection. I guess you could say I have a serious case of "chiastic fever." It's a new ailment that hasn't yet made it into the medical and psychiatric textbooks. In plain English, it's what happens when people don't just get into chiasmus, but chiasmus also gets into them. Be careful; it's contagious.
In July 1999, Viking Penguin published the first popular book ever written on the subject of chiasmus: Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. The book is my attempt to introduce chiasmus to a broad audience. I have high hopes. The Quality Paperback Book Club has chosen it as a monthly selection, which is an encouraging early sign. And, after seeing a bound galley of the book in May, The Washington Post sponsored a chiastic quotes contest. Scores of readers submitted some very clever entries. Craig McGowan of Liverpool, New York was declared the winner with this entry:
Nice work, Craig! At some point, I hope you'll enter our own "Chiastic Quotes Competition," which I'll be describing shortly.
The best place to start is probably What is Chiasmus? There I provide a formal definition, offer a few thoughts on pronunciation and usage, discuss the fascinating etymology of the word, where you will learn why chiastic quotes are said to be "marked with an X," and describe the ABBA method scholars use when studying chiasmus. You'll discover that chiasmus doesn't just involve a reversal of single words, but also complete phrases, sounds of words, and even numbers. You'll also learn about chiastic come-backs and see why chiasmus is called a figure of speech and a rhetorical device. You'll also discover that chiasmus is a vehicle for expressing some of life's most profound truths, where the opposite of a true statement is also true.
In Masters of Chiasmus we'll look at how the world's greatest writers, orators, and thinkers have employed chiasmus in their writings and speeches. Masters of chaismus include Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, Confucius, Ben Franklin, George Bernard Shaw, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others.
If you're a fan of Jeopardy, you'll love The Chiastic Quiz Show, an "answers and questions" show inspired by the popular game show, Jeopardy. In An Open Letter to Alex Trebek, I talk about how I came up with the idea for the show and challenge one of my favorite television personalities to participate.
If you enjoy reading The New Yorker magazine, you may want to check out Chiasmus in the New Yorker. There I provide examples of chiasmus I've found while reading my favorite magazine. I do the same thing in Chiasmus in the Boston Globe.
Our Chiastic Quotes Competition gives creative types an opportunity to flex their chiastic muscles and maybe even win some cool prizes in the process.
In Types of Chiasmus, you'll learn about many fascinating variations on the chiastic theme—including a rare and special form of "double chiasmus" and one of the most interesting forms of chiasmus, something I call "implied chiasmus."
In About the Book, I'll tell you about my Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You book, share some of the kind things people have said about it, and provide you with online ordering information.
Welcome to the world of chiasmus and chiastic quotations.