Chiasmus!

The News-Journal actually has a feature on chiasmus: When chiasmus is outlawed, only outlaws will use chiasmus!

What do the following expressions have in common? “Who sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed.” “But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” “Life imitates art more than art imitates life.” “Well, it’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.” “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

The answer is that they all are examples of an old rhetorical strategy called chiasmus. A chiasmus is an inversion of two balanced clauses in a sentence, in the form of A B B A. There are several types of chiasmus, but they all involve this kind of inversion. We encounter chiasmus in the works of great writers and speakers in their most memorable formulations.

Effective language is no accident, and its study is ancient. Our brains are sensitive to patterns of language, and we find patterned language especially memorable. The classical Greeks loved to talk and to argue, to speak and to listen, and being an effective citizen meant being able to persuade one’s neighbors of the rightness of one’s cause. (That was true of most Greeks, except for the Spartans, who were laconic, made their money out of iron, were fearless in battle but highly superstitious and timid in religion.) Greek linguistic virtuosity impressed the conquering Romans so much that elite Roman families employed Greek tutor slaves to teach rhetoric to their sons. The Greeks developed the art of rhetoric, the Romans applied this knowledge to their own language, and Latin influenced the literatures of Western Europe until the 18th century. It turns out many rhetorical devices identified by the Greeks are equally effective in English, and for that matter, in other languages as well.

One of the problems with studying rhetoric is the terms are all, well, so very Greek. Terms like “antimetabole” or “asyndeton” don’t exactly lend themselves to easy understanding or roll off the tongue. “Chiasmus” is an odd word, too, but it’s such a distinctive rhetorical device I find it easy to remember.

The first example I gave is from the book of Genesis and was composed in Hebrew. The Psalms in particular often show patterns of repetition and inversion. The second example is Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, which was written in Greek. The third example is Shakespeare, next comes Oscar Wilde, then the indomitable Mae West, and finally, a chiasmus all Americans should know, from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, actually written by speechwriter Theodore Sorenson, who used chiasmus frequently in Kennedy’s speeches.

Winston Churchill employed chiasmus effectively as he rallied Britain against the fascist threat in Europe during the Second World War. After the battle of Alamein in North Africa, he addressed his people, saying: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Frederick Douglass proudly declared, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Mardy Grothe gives sound advice saying, “Don’t let a kiss fool you, or a fool kiss you.” Ralph Waldo Emerson sagely noted that, “Speech is better than silence; silence is better than speech,” which is both a chiasmus and a paradox.

And, perhaps, a good way to end today’s column.

Classical folks look at chiasmus in a bit more painful detail (which might be why there was some confusion a while ago with results from AP exams). Fellow-long-time-blogger Michael Gilleland blogged on chiasmus in general a year or so ago, with some examples from English and Greek (mostly Plato):

… he went on to display some more (Greek) examples of the sort which don’t usually come up in English class:

On the Latin side, check out Laura Gibb’s massive collection of examples at her Latin via Proverbs page:

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