In a Word: Crossing a Chiasmus

It’s a turn of phrase that takes a phrase and turns it.

Close up of frozen ice
(N_Sakarin / Shutterstock)

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Normally I devote this column to dissecting the history of common, everyday words. This week I’m doing something a little different and writing about one of my favorite rhetorical devices, and it has a decidedly uncommon name: chiasmus. 

A chiasmus (which is also known as “reverse parallelism”) is a statement that contains two phrases in which elements from the first phrase are repeated in the second phrase but in the opposite order, creating a symmetry. In common understanding, those transposed elements are usually words, like in this well-known saying:

  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

See how the words going and tough trade positions between the first and second phrases? That’s the chiasmus.

Here’s another one, from the novel Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin (though it’s often misattributed to Bertrand Russell or John Lennon):

  • Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

When I defined chiasmus above, I deliberately generalized it as a transposition of elements rather than words, because a chiasmus can involve the inversion of other types of grammatical structures, like parts of speech. Take, for example, this chiasmus from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

  • Love without end, and without measure Grace.

Here the structure of the first phrase — “Love (noun) without end (prepositional phrase)” — is inverted in the second: “without measure (prepositional phrase) Grace (noun).” That Milton used the same preposition (without) in both phrases just reinforces the form.

In academic circles, some argue that the Milton example is rightly called a chiasmus, but the earlier examples — in which the actual words are repeated — are antimetabole (from the Greek anti- “opposite” + metabole “turning about, twisting”). There is further disagreement about whether antimetabole is a type of chiasmus or they are separate rhetorical devices.

But outside the halls of academe, chiasmus normally covers all these examples; that crossing of words or elements is the important bit. And it’s that crossing that gives it its name: Chiasmus alludes (in a Latinized way) to the Greek letter chi, what we know as X. Incidentally, though John Milton was quite fond of using the chiasmus construction in his work, he would never have called it that; the word wasn’t coined until the mid-1800s, two centuries after his death.

Now that you know what a chiasmus is, you’re probably going to start noticing it everywhere. It comes up in music (“If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” —Stephen Stills), in literature (“But if thought can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought.” —George Orwell), in comedy one-liners (“In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, the Party can always find you.” —Yakov Smirnoff), in advertising (“I am stuck on Band-Aid, ’cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me.”), and in popular witticisms (“I’m not a writer with a drinking problem, I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” —Dorothy Parker).

Ted Sorenson, a speechwriter for President Kennedy, was a big fan of chiasmus. You might remember these examples from JFK’s speeches:

  • “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
  • “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”
  • “Each increase of tension has produced an increase of arms; each increase of arms has produced an increase of tension.”

Political speeches are prime spots to pick out this rhetorical device. In fact, it was a nice chiasmus in President-elect Joe Biden’s victory speech that got me excited to write about it here. (I learned later that this wasn’t a particularly original phrase, however.) He said this:

  • “We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” 

But the chiasmus is for everyone. A good chiasmus can add some zip to a phrase and make it more memorable, whether you’re speaking before a large audience or just writing your annual family Christmas letter. 

Featured image: N_Sakarin / Shutterstock

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  1. Quite an interesting article here that was not time wasted, or a waste of time. We must remember the body is not hidden from the soul, nor is the soul hidden from the body. I like that one.


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