Monday Metaphor: Chiasmus: Learn to Study and Study to Learn

In rhetoric, chiasmus is a figure of speech which consists of two phrases or clauses which are parallel in syntax but with reversed structures (or inverted parallelism). As the name implies, the composition resembles an X in formation.

A synonym of chiasmus, antimetabole (pronounced  an-ti-mə-tab-ə-lee) is the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed grammatical order (e.g., “I know what I like, and I like what I know”). It is similar to chiasmus although chiasmus does not use repetition of the same words or phrases.

It appears that most modern grammarians use the two words interchangeably. 

Chiasmus was particularly popular both in Greek and in Latin literature, where it was used to articulate balance or order within a text.

Pliny the Younger uses the chiasmus frequently in his letters.

For example, in his letter about the death of Pliny the Elder, he described his uncle sailing into danger to save others:

            “He hurried to the place from where others were fleeing.”

A more complex form can be found in Cicero’s oration Pro Archia Poeta:

“There is a man present of the highest authority, duty, and faith, M. Lucullus who (will testify) that he himself does not believe but knows, did not hear but saw, was not only present but did it himself.”

In Wounds, p. 74 of the ms is this statement: “Here was all the proof he needed, if he needed proof of his villainy.” In fact, the book itself is formulated on a chiastic structure. (MuseItUp Publishing)

Elegant examples of chiasmus are found in the writings of political figures, for instance, four American presidents.

“…ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.

Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” John F. Kennedy

America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.”  Jimmy Carter Farewell Address

            The US Declaration of Independence, referring to the British: “We must… hold them, as    we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” (Thomas Jefferson).

      “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example    than by the example of our power.” Bill Clinton at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

As well as,

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Benjamin Franklin

 “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” Anon

“They say money don’t make the man but man, I’m makin’ money.” Tupac Shakur in the song “Thug Passion.”

Some of the more familiar examples of chiasmus come from the Bible. “Who sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed…” Genesis 9:6.

Examples abound, too, in poetry.

“Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” P. B. Shelley, Defense of Poetry.

And sometimes in children’s literature.

“I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent!” Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches an Egg.

Chiasmus does not need to be lexical; it can also be aural, as the classic quote,

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

Or the Fall Out Boy song title: “Champagne for my Real Friends; Real Pain for my Sham Friends”.

So bowing out on that entertaining note, this document will bid you goodbye.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Colleen
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 08:00:12

    Thank goodness for your examples! They really help 🙂


  2. Nancy Stewart
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 08:09:09


    What a fun and intelligent way to begin a morning! Thanks again for writing your Monday Metaphor!


  3. Janet Ann Collins
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 10:18:00

    We sure have a fun and interesting language.


  4. Jayne
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 12:02:36

    Love that you include Benjamin Franklin and Tupac Shakur in the same piece. That took some work!!


  5. Barbara Ehrentreu
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 14:11:20

    Barbara, thank you for constantly informing us of the various figures of speech. I have studied language a lot and I have never heard of a “chiasmus”. However, your examples helped to understand this a great deal!!

    I used that Dr. Seuss quote in my novel, If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor. It’s a great one!!


  6. J. Aday Kennedy
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 18:59:20

    I just read “After Tupac & D Foster.” It was a Newbery Honor Book 2008. Not my usual music taste, but I’m going to check it out.


  7. barbarabockman
    Aug 23, 2011 @ 00:35:22

    Thanks, All, for visiting. Chiasmus is one of my favorite rhetorical devices.

    I can’t take credit for mixing Tupac and Benjamin Franklin. Frankly, I never heard of Tupac before and didn’t know about his music. Not my taste, either. But I guess anybody who has a facility for language is to be congratulated.

    Barbara, I knew you were using a quote from Dr. Seuss, but I didn’t know which one. I’m using one of his, too.


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